Archive for March, 2013

Something to Fall Back On

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Last week we posted about famous thinkers and artists who kept their day jobs.

Many other great minds had day jobs before they became full-time geniuses. Not every Sigmund Freud or Leonardo da Vinci starts off excelling at his or her area of expertise. OK, maybe those two did, but that’s not the point.

Here are some people who had different careers before their main talents were acknowledged.


One of the greatest minds of the 20th – or any – century, ALBERT EINSTEIN developed his groundbreaking ideas while working as an assistant examiner at the Swiss patent office in Bern.


ANDY WARHOL was in the advertising business, which, arguably, he never left after he was famous.


Composer IGOR STRAVINSKY was interested in music from a young age, but his father, an opera singer, understood the perils of a life in the arts and insisted that he study law instead. After his father’s death Stravinsky switched to a life in music.


Author JAMES JOYCE spent years as an English teacher at the Berlitz Language School in Zürich and Trieste. A man who went on to write sentences such as “But Noodynaady’s actual ingrate tootle is of come into the garner mauve and thy nice are stores of morning and buy me a bunch of iodines” must have been a very interesting English teacher.


Recently discovered records have shown that WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE performed as a clown at children’s birthday parties before becoming a full-time actor and writer.


During WWII, before she was a model and actress, MARILYN MONROE, then a young Norma Jeane Dougherty, was a worker at the Radioplane Munitions Factory. Her job included spraying airplane parts with fire retardant and inspecting parachutes. She was working there when photographer David Conover “discovered” her during a photo shoot of young women helping the war effort.


At the age of 12, CHARLES DICKENS was forced to leave school and work 10-hour days at a boot blacking factory. This experience was so horrible that it haunted Dickens for the rest of his life, and served as material for his books and his advocacy against child labor.


Author WILLIAM BURROUGHS was an exterminator before he moved to New York and joined up with the people who would become the Beats.

Smartass Response to a Philosopher #9

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

“Everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on living through weakness, and dies by accident” – Jean-Paul Sartre

I bet that was just a blood sugar thing.

They Didn’t Quit Their Day Jobs

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

You may be brilliant. Maybe you’re a revolutionary thinker, with ideas that can change the way we see the world. You may be an influential philosopher, a visionary artist, or a writer with a keen insight to human experience.

That doesn’t mean you can make a living.

Here’s a list of famous thinkers and artists who practiced other vocations.

Playwright and author ANTON CHEKHOV made his living as a medical doctor and a journalist.


HERMAN MELVILLE worked at various jobs throughout his life. He sailed on a whaling ship, taught school, and spent 19 years working at the customs house in NYC.


Philosopher BARUCH SPINOZA made his living as a lens grinder. Spinoza’s day job was the literal death of him – he died of a lung illness caused by breathing glass dust.


Composer CHARLES IVES’ job insurance was actually a job in insurance. He kept this job until he retired, and his was so successful at it that he is considered one of the fathers of modern American insurance.


Philosopher LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN was from a very wealthy family so he didn’t need to work for a living. But he wanted to disassociate himself from his family. In the summer of 1920, Wittgenstein worked as a gardener for a monastery. He then applied for an elementary school teaching post under a false name, but declined it when his identity as a Wittgenstein was discovered. He did up teaching school in a remote village though, and was known to be a harsh taskmaster. (And perhaps his reliance on corporal punishment led to his controversial brandishing of a poker in a philosophical discussion years later.)

In a letter, Wittgenstein captured what countless people undoubtedly feel about their day jobs:

“I am still at Trattenbach, surrounded, as ever, by odiousness and baseness. I know that human beings on the average are not worth much anywhere, but here they are much more good-for-nothing and irresponsible than elsewhere.”


JOAN OF ARC was a bar maid between military campaigns.*


EDGAR ALLAN POE was determined to be the first American author to make his living solely by writing. Previously, American authors had been independently wealthy or earned their money from other jobs. Not Poe. He fought for the right to make his living as an author. In a time without copyright law, this was particularly hard. But although he did often get paid as a writer and critic, and even started his own magazine, Poe lived most of his life in poverty and died in a poor, miserable state, proving once and for all that it is impossible to earn a living in the arts.

*This one may not be true.

UPG’s Incredible Sonic Wallet

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

We are thrilled to announce the introduction of a brand new product line: Sonic Wallets!

These colorful Tyvek® wallets each play a variety of sounds or music when you open them up.

Our Drum Machine wallet lays out a variety of classic drum machine beats. Our Scream wallet screams. Our Shakespearean Insult wallet hurls Shakespearian insults at you. And our American flag wallet plays loud patriotic music to show everyone just how American you are.

These wallets are now in stock and available for purchase here.

We have eight styles now, but many more are in the works!

Smartass Response to a Philosopher #8

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” – William of Ockham 

Well, duh.

Behind the Scenes: The Creation of a Little Thinker

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

The creation of any new UPG product is a long and detailed process. We take this work seriously, and we take our time to get it right.

Sometimes though things get very strange before they get good. As in our Bob Marley finger puppet below.

Our Bob Marley Magnetic Personality went through some hard times before he got good. The one on the left was our first sample. His hair is entirely wrong. Oh, and he's also white!

Our Bob Marley Magnetic Personality went through some hard times. The hair is entirely wrong in sample #1. Oh, and he’s also white! And sample #3 substituted gay pride colors for rastafarian colors. We eventually got it right.

We thought it might be interesting for you to see the journey a product takes from conception to completion. So here’s the story of the creation of the Kurt Vonnegut Little Thinker.

The first stage of adding a new personality to a current line is deciding who to make. There are a lot of factors involved, but the most important are if the personality fits in our line, and if the personality might sell. We have to order new Little Thinkers in high quantities, so we can’t be too obscure. To those of you who would like us to make a Jacques Lacan or Gottfried Leibniz or Ludwig Wittgenstein Little Thinker, we would love to do that, but until our Nietzsche and Socrates Little Thinkers and our Derrida finger puppets become bestsellers, we aren’t able to make that commitment. (Although there is a Descartes puppet in the works…)

And there are rights issues to consider for personalities who are still alive or who died within the last 100 years or so. Martin Luther King or Alfred Hitchcock or Gloria Steinem aren’t going to be possible. It does vary depending on where the person died though; some states and countries protect rights of publicity after death, and some don’t.

And finally, simply, what person would aesthetically make a good Little Thinker? The personality should have some very strong physical attributes; signature facial hair, a certain kind of glasses, a signature outfit, etc. There’s only so much control we can put into face design, the nose is always going to be round, and the features have to be clearly recognizable so that you can tell who the person is supposed to be. Our attempts at a JFK puppet can show you how easy it is for our plush to resemble no one in particular.

Our JFK Magnetic Personality prototype didn't really look like anybody in particular.

Our JFK Magnetic Personality prototype didn’t really look like anybody.

And don’t get us started on how hard it was to design a Hillary Clinton prototype during the 2008 primaries. She pretty much looked like JFK above.

So how did we come up with Vonnegut?

Vonnegut had been on our short list for a long time. We’re fans and he’s an important American 20th century thinker, arguably an heir to Mark Twain, who we already make as a puppet and card. Vonnegut died in New York State, which clears up rights issues, but it wasn’t until we were put in touch with the executor of Vonnegut’s estate and received his blessing that we decided to go ahead with the project.

OK, so now we have a Little Thinker to make. What’s next?

Our current go-to designer for Little Thinkers and Magnetic Personalities is Yael Levy.

Yael begins with research. She finds source images of the personality that captures his or her essence and that lend well to plush design. So Yael began the Vonnegut design process by examining a wide range of images of Vonnegut.

The next stage is then a first sketch.


Let’s let Yael take over from here.

Yael: Lucky for me Vonnegut’s facial features are quite unique, his eyes hold most of his character and then the mustache and curly hair help too (although they may also create some confusion.. i.e. Geraldo Rivera). Also, Vonnegut seems to be smoking in almost every photo of him on the internet,  and props are always fun, so we gave him a cigarette. 

Then, after a few weeks of anticipation a sample comes, and it looks like this-


So for this first sample we had two main comments- Kurt needed a knit sweater (we couldn’t find images of him anywhere in a plaid fleece) and the hair needed to be more wild, but otherwise he was looking pretty good. The cigarette was too big though, and a smaller one wouldn’t really be possible so we decided to remove it. We made some corrections on top of the photo and sent it to the factory.


Then we got these sweater options, still way off mark.


So finally, we swapped Vonnegut’s sweater with the one our Albert Einstein Little Thinker wears and took a photo. That read loud and clear.


Our manufacturer ultimately found a material that was a slightly different color so we now have two different blue sweaters in out little thinkers wardrobe. And that’s a good thing. Just in case Vonnegut and Einstein meet one day, it would be embarrassing if they were wearing the same sweater.


The final result- a cuddly fuzzy Kurt Vonnegut.