The Origins of Cool Tools

Next week (on February 5) I’m going to discuss the ancient origins of Cool Tools with Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand. Brand started the Whole Earth Catalog as a periodical mail order catalog almost 50 years ago in the late 1960s. Aimed at young maker types living on communes trying to re-invent civilization, his catalogs recommended and reviewed handy tools for that job. The Catalogs, in many versions over the years, were a big self-publishing hit; millions were sold. I worked on and published later versions of this book, and this experience was the genesis of the Cool Tools website and its recently published superbook.

When Stewart Brand first opened a copy of the brand new Cool Tools book he exclaimed “It’s the Catalog, only better!” He said he’d love to discuss the contrast between the two publications — Cool Tools and Whole Earth. On February 5, 6pm PST, Stewart and I will talk about the early DIY movement and its connection to today’s Maker ethos. The conversation will roam from building domes on communes to building domes at Burning Man, from user-generated content on newsprint to user-generated content on blogs. From soft basket making to software making. One hour of deep reflection on unleashing amateur enthusiasm.

Our venue will be the experimental webinar platform, Shindig. The idea of Shindig is to create a virtual conference space where an unlimited number of people can both listen to a conversation as well as potentially participate. Stewart and I will stream our conversation from my studio in Pacifica, CA. Readers and the audience can view the conversation from a free account of Shindig. Any viewer can “raise their hand” with a text question, which our moderator will queue up. We’ll answer live on the video stream as many questions as we can in an hour. Half Reddit AMA, half Google Hangout on Air, the technology might be twitchy. Stewart Brand and I will give it a go.

See you at Shindig, February 5, 6pm PST.

-- KK  



Dead tool: Retractable Cable Combination Lock

Regarding the Master 2 Ft. retractable cable lock reviewed on December 27, 2013: More than a few commenters were skeptical about the strength of the lock. Some said it is easy to pull the end of the cable out of the lock. I bought a lock and tried to yank the end out, but failed. Others said the cable could be easily cut. I used a pair of sewing scissors and was able to cut the cable in a couple of seconds. In our view, this lock is not a cool tool. We are unrecommending it and have recategorized it as a “dead tool.”

Let this also be an open invitation to share your experience with anything reviewed on Cool Tools. You can reach me at editor@cool-tools.org.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  



 

Cool Tools 2013 Holiday Gift Guide: Last Minute Ideas

Here’s the final installment in our 2013 series of gift guides. This time: last minute gift ideas! (Previous gift guide posts: Low Cost Tools, Beautiful Books, Mark’s picks, Kevin’s picks.)

Proxxon Mini Saws For my work building models and automata, I own two Proxxon miniature power tools, and they are both amazing. Not amazing for their size; just plain amazing. Chop Saw $198 | Table Saw $360

SwiMP3 The SwiMP3 consists of swim goggles with an MP3 player using headphones that rest flat on the cheek bones, between your ears and your eyes, so that you hear the music through bone conduction rather than through your ears. $125

Dewalt Random Orbital Sander Random-orbital sanders spin as circles within circles, leaving little discernible pattern of abrasion on the work. The round hook-and-loop paper is magic. These disks securely attachment and detach in a second, and don’t slip. $52

Fiskars PowerGear Bypass Lopper If you think a pruning saw can go through a branch like a hot knife through butter, just try these Fiskars! Not as portable as my little folding pruning saws, but oooh the leverage action is sweet and effortless! $36

500Mbs Powerline Ethernet Adapter Kit Extend your home Internet using electrical outlets. These are basically ethernet bridges. I have my cable router plugged in where the cable comes in and the signal is best, then have my wifi and powerline adapters plugged into that router (it has 4 ports). I’ve not had any problem streaming or even sending files between computers. $86

-- Cool Tools  



 

Santa Backup Plan B

The Cool Tools book has been a big hit. It’s been a personal delight to find so many fans enjoying it. However, I underestimated how many would sell on Amazon, and so now it is sold out for Christmas. While there is another boatload that will unload copies in the first week of January, that will be too late for Christmas gifts. This snafu has really bummed me out since I worked so hard to get the books on Amazon in time for the holidays. So I offer a plan B.

I have a personal stash in my garage of books I’ve been sending to friends. If you are a fan of Cool Tools and really want one by Christmas, I may be able to mail you one. Here is the deal.

Fill out this Google form within the next day or two, and we will email a request for payment via PayPal. Once payment is received, we will begin mailing out books on Wednesday via Media Mail, which is the only affordable way. In our experience they will reach the west coast in a few days, and the east coast in a week. We CANNOT guarantee they will get to you before Christmas. For the book and shipping we charge $35 by PayPal, which is still $5 less than the list and bookstore price. (I have no idea how Amazon sells shipped books as cheap as they do. I suspect they don’t make any profit selling books.) This is for US addresses only.

If that is too uncertain for you, some bookstores have it in stock, but I’d call before you went, since relatively few copies of Cool Tools made it to bookstores; most went to Amazon.

I really do think that this Cool Tools book is an ideal gift, particularly for the young at heart, and it upsets me that we sold out at the peak of the gift season. There will be lots of copies available in the new year, but I will do my best to get one out to fans right now if at all possible.

To do that: Fill out this Google form and we will email a request for payment via PayPal for $35 per book. If you have any questions, email cl@kk.org.

Or wait for the next round in early January.

-- KK  



Cool Tools 2013 Holiday Gift Guide: Kevin’s Picks

In the days leading up to the holidays, we are presenting a series of gift suggestions. Today: Kevin’s picks. (Previous gift guide posts: Low Cost Tools, Beautiful Books, Mark’s picks.)

Brock microscope After several years of looking for an everyday microscope suitable for a busy family I found one. There is no fussing, no adjustments. The viewing field is amazingly bright and clear. And best of all it is practically indestructible. $145

 

Perplexus This is a cool 3-dimensional maze that is easy to get started and hard to finish. You need to steer a small metal ball along an ingenious obstacle course by rotating the clear plastic globe. Because it’s like a 3D video game without the electronics, the very physical nature of playing — turning it this way and that — is very satisfying. $21

 

Fuji Instax Mini A surprisingly useful instant picture camera. $95

 

Travel Clothesline On long vacation trips when we wash our own undies, socks, and whatnots in our hotel room sink, this nifty braided rubber clothes line is the thing we use to dry them. It weighs a mere few ounces. $16

 

Heifer International For fifty years the Heifer Project has been providing families in developing countries (and parts of the US) with breeding pairs of animals. It’s hard to imagine a better gift, or a more practical, proven lever in making a difference in communities of need.

-- KK  



 

Cool Tools 2013 Holiday Gift Guide: Mark’s Picks

In the days leading up to the holidays, we are presenting a series of gift suggestions. Today: Mark’s picks. (Previous gift guide posts: Low Cost Tools, Beautiful Books)

Sugru is a moldable silicone rubber compound that air cures and sticks to everything I’ve ever applied it to, including glass. I’ve used it to mend suitcase zippers, two pairs of headphones, a dishwasher, and many other broken things around the house. It comes in a variety of bright colors, as well as black and white. $18 for an 8-pack


Make: Electronics is the best book on learning electronics I’ve come across. It assumes zero knowledge and teaches you the function of components and common circuits through well-explained projects, many of which intentionally push components beyond their rated limits so that you end up frying them. It’s a great way to reduce your anxiety about making mistakes. Charles is an excellent photographer and charming illustrator, and puts both talents to good use here. (I’m editor-in-chief of MAKE, which is owned by the same company that published Charles’ book.) $23


Illuminated Multipower LED Binohead Magnifier. I’ve used mine to remove splinters, solder small components, check my kid’s hair for lice, remove gunk from a camera’s USB port, and lots of other tasks. They are more powerful than reading glasses, and the LED illumination is excellent. $8


An Island to Oneself
In the 1950s, a 50-year-old New Zealander named Tom Neale moved to a tiny island called Suwarrow (aka Suvarov) in the Cook Islands. He was the only human inhabitant, and his story of survival is absolutely fascinating. I read Robinson Crusoe and was disappointed; An Island to Oneself is the real deal. Neale eked subsistence out of a garden and by fishing, and carefully used his supplies of spices and tea (he used the leaves over and over again). He had zero contact with the outside world, and since Suwarrow wasn’t in a shipping lane, visitors were very rare. I wish the book had been longer — I loved every word of it. $24


Fagor 3-in-1 Multicooker Unlike most pressure cookers it has an electric browning feature, which lets you brown beef, fish, or chicken right in the pot before you pressure cook it, greatly improving the flavor. The Fagor is also a slow cooker and a rice cooker. Because it is so versatile, I use it almost every day. The throw-everything-in-the-pot-and-push-a-button approach has broadened my cooking horizons. I’ve made rib roast in the slow cooker that had my in-laws coming back for thirds. I’ve made mouth-watering chicken stuffed with sun-dried tomato pesto, basil and goat cheese in a matter of minutes. I’ve made salmon with spinach and lemon sauce, fennel and Italian sausage, creamy risotto, and spicy Bolognese sauce. Thanks to an online army of pressure-cooker devotees, I’ll never run out of recipes. $90

-- Mark Frauenfelder  



 

Early Comments on Cool Tools Book

Self publishing is a bit of a challenge. Amazon has taken charge of the container full of printed copies that landed in Tennessee last week. But as of today, they have still not released the books to customers. However, pre-orders continue to pile up. In fact, while Amazon will hopefully release the books this week — in plenty of time for Christmas — they have only 5,000 or so books on hand. Additional copies are being shipped from Hong Kong, but won’t make it by Christmas. So, short story, if you would like a copy for Christmas (and I really do think it makes a fantastic gift), you should pre-order now. I can’t guarantee how many books will be available later this month, but I can promise that any pre-orders now will be delivered before Christmas.

Here are what some folks who received advance copies have to say about the book:

“What a knockout! Book of the year!”
— Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons 

“When this fabulous, amazing, unputdownable book arrived at my studio I immediately spent two and a half hours in it, and then the next morning passed another three-hour stint of ‘Wow — look at this! I could do that!’ This book is more exciting — in both what it actually offers and what kind of life it suggests — than anything I’ve read for a very long time. It’s an outstanding achievement in every sense — content, design, and quality.
— Brian Eno, musician, artist

“Flipping through Cool Tools is a completely different experience from reading the same material online. Long live dead trees!”
— David PescovitzBoing Boing 

“If this doesn’t solve some large part of your Christmas shopping challenges, you need a different set of people to whom you give Christmas presents. The book itself (a real print 463-page glossy-stock oversizer) is great either for young people starting a home, or geezers who are in touch with their youth who might want to be shocked and reminded why so much of their take-control-of-your-own-life life is the way it is, or somebody who just could use a striking coffee-table conversation-starter/stopper. And then there are the hundreds and hundreds of amazing things — “tools” defined extremely widely and deeply as stuff that really works reviewed by people who’ve actually used them — to give you more gift ideas.”
— Joel GarreauWashington Post, author of Edge City and Radical Evolution

“I don’t know an adjective large enough to do it justice.”
— Michael LitchfieldFine Homebuilding 

“I love it. A worthy successor to the Whole Earth Catalog.”
— Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography

“This is a roundup of over 1500 tool reviews with incredibly useful tips and how-tos covering just about everything you can imagine. On one page there will be a recommendation for a great truck (Toyota pickup) on another they’ll be tips on learning how to swim properly (it’s all about the stroke length). This is, without a doubt, my favorite book to come out in 2013.”
— Sal CangelosoGeek.com

“The Cool Tools book was sitting on the counter of the bar when an old boatbuilding friend stopped by and immediately became immersed in it. His exact words: “I GET this! There’s no buttons to press!”
— George Dyson, author of Turing’s Cathedral 

“Best coffee table books = size of coffee table. Kudos for the beautiful Cool Tools collection.”
— Scott McCloud, cartoonist

“Right now, do not pass Go, do not collect $200… just grab a copy of Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. It’s 460+ full-color pages of ear-to-ear grinning, hours of ooh-ing and aah-ing, and years of repetitive page-turning. After it arrived at my door, I lost almost two full hours in its pages before realizing just how much time had elapsed… and this was me just skimming the various sections and randomly jumping from item to item. Since then, I’ve lost a few more hours as I’ve started to methodically tackle specific sections that are relevant to a few special projects that interest me (right now).”
— James Floyd KellyGeekDad 

“Most catalogs are short stories. This one is a catalog novel.”
— Mark Pauline, Survival Research roboticist

“Covering topics from hand tools to adhesives, organizational oddments, bicycles that double as chainsaws, beer brewing, mushroom growing, milling and fabricating, and so much more, it’s enough to make your brain hurt with all the ideas for projects.”
— Michael UnaInventables 

“Bravo for this mega catalog. Back to the future!”
— Steven Leveen, CEO founder of Levenger’s

“I find myself not only flabbergasted at the size and extent of this achievement but happily awash in the feeling I used to get from the Whole Earth Catalogs; that all may not be right with the world, but that it could be.”
— Jim Woodring, illustrator and cartoonist

-- KK  

Today: $25 Cool Tools

Available from Amazon



Show and Tell live video

There’s still time to start or join a Cool Tools Show & Tell Meetup in your town. But if you can’t make it for some reason, you are invited to watch the live video stream of the Show & Tell taking place at Kevin’s place tomorrow (December 4, 2013) at 7:30pm PT. We’ll post a streaming video here on Cool Tools, or you can visit the Google event page here and watch the video.

To learn more about the Cool Tools Show & Tell Meetup, read Kevin’s post about it here.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  



2013 Holiday Gift Guide: Beautiful Books

In the days leading up to the holidays, we are presenting a series of gift suggestions. Today: our favorite visual reference books. (Previous gift guide post: Low Cost Tools)

Art Forms in Nature, by Ernst Haeckel, is a library of possibilities. Artists, engineers, and natural scientists use this album for inspiration, since each of these bizarre forms is a living highly-evolved organism. $17


Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia There are so many levels to these tattoos that they were officially collected and copied by the authors in order to decipher them. Each one is a small bomb of meaning; as visual source material you can’t have more power than these. $23


Secret Museum of Mankind It’s sort of a combination of early uncensored National Geographic and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Reproduced without a known author, or copyright, or even authentication of the captions, it was for many years a “secret” underground publication. And for pure gawking pleasures it still can’t be beat. $25


Parallel Encyclopedia, by Batia Suter, is a fat encyclopedia of thousands of pictorial gems taken from old books. These old-timey results won’t show up on Google image search. Each page is a wonderful orthogonal view of our world –- Items are roughly grouped by category. It’s a constant source of amazement, kind of a visual curiosity cabinet. (Out of print, but copies are available on Amazon)


Natural Art Forms, by Karl Blossfeldt, is similar to Haeckel’s book, but primarily close ups of plants and seeds. There is an other-worldly aspect to these organic forms, in monumental black and white. A great inspiration for sculpture and 3D thinking. (Out of print, but copies are available on Amazon)

-- Cool Tools