Google Apps Mail


I don’t mean your personal Gmail account, or an iPhone app for Gmail.

I mean using Google Apps as an invisible email provider for your small business or even large business. For instance, when you send mail to me at, that mail is processed by Google Apps Mail. Same for mail to anyone else here at, or Quantified Self, etc. Behind the scenes of my own domain names Google does the mail.

You can think of this as a custom Gmail account. It gives you several advantages.

* Google does a fantastic job of filtering spam. It gets 95%, with no false positives. (I then apply a second Baysian filter with SpamSieve, to give me almost zero spam and zero false spam. For me there is no spam problem. Gone!)

* While I normally read my mail on my “desktop” client, I can access my mail on the road from any computer in the world (with the usual precautions) by logging onto Google Apps (not the Gmail url).

* I have an indefinite backup of my mail on Google’s servers, worry free. I’ve used this backup more than once.

* Yet I still retain my own domain named email without it being a generic Gmail account. You can run through Google Mail Apps.

* I don’t have to run a mail server or keep software and security updated.

* Once I set it up (five minutes) this setup applies to everyone in my office/organization who also gets his/her mail at these domains.

* It’s free.

Before Google starting offering this free “custom Gmail app” as part of their App suite including Google Docs and Google Calendar (which are also fantastic cool tools), I gained some of these similar results by forwarding all my mail through my free ordinary Gmail account and then back to me at my own servers. That hack worked, but this new custom mail app is much easier to setup, maintain and use. I first became aware of it when my wife’s work (Genentech) moved their entire 10,000 employees’ mail to a custom Google Apps system. Now you can too. It is part of the migration onto the “cloud,” especially for small businesses.

Google Apps Standard edition is free. Larger institutions and corporations switching their email over to Google Apps may want the paid Premium Edition ($50 per user per year) with more perks, features, storage and support.

-- KK  

Google Apps Mail, Standard Edition

Available from Google

Artful Sentences

Artful Sentences has increased my understanding as to how syntax creates and conveys meaning. Virginia Tufte guides the reader through more than a thousand sentences she’s culled from some of the best writing of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her commentaries highlight the (easily overlooked) contribution of syntax to the expressive success of a well-crafted sentence.

This book is unlike any other on writing I’ve seen. It is not about basic rules. It is not a standardized style guide to be used as a reference manual. Artful Sentences is divided up into 14 chapters; each chapter covers a different concept related to syntax. Tufte provides her analysis first and then follows with an example. Sometimes she quotes an entire paragraph to demonstrate the impact the chosen sentence has within its original context.

Don’t let dry chapter titles such as “Short Sentences,” “Noun Phrases,” “Prepositions,” etc., deter you; the content is highly academic and at times dense, but it’s a pleasurable read in proper doses. I prefer to explore Artful Sentences in short spurts. The sample sentences often catch my attention first and then I dig in to see what Tufte says about them. (You can also use the index to choose a favorite author and then search out his/her quotes.) I process what I’ve read and return to the book at a later time — opening it up to any one of its 14 chapters and starting again. Reading Tufte’s book gives me the immediate pleasure of saying, “Damn, that’s a good sentence!” often followed by, “Now how do I create one of my own?” The experience is similar to learning about visual art or playing music.

-- Scott Singer  

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style
Virginia Tufte
2006, 308 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Noun Phrases
Below, a sentence with parallelism best suited to a speech is composed of six kernel clauses, each with a noun phrase in the direct object slot. In five of the clauses, the parallelism and the repetition of the key concept they conserve emphasize the treasures being conserved in those direct objects:

These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery.
Wendell Berry, Citizenship Papers, 170

Syntactic Symbolism
Another repetition of prepositional phrases, here artfully doubled, divides a sentence’s spaces into spaces into spaces. This helps to imitate and dramatize an effective simile emphasized by its syntax as a fragment:

Space is all one space and thought is all one thought, but my mind divides its spaces into spaces into spaces and thoughts into thoughts into thoughts. Like a large condominium. Occasionally I think about the one Space and the one Thought, but usually I don’t. Usually I think about my condominium.
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 143

Left-Branching Sentences
In many successful left-branching sentences, there is a temporal or logical development of the expressed idea that invites the delayed disclosure of the left-branching arrangement. The material that concludes the sentence makes an almost inevitable point:

The afternoon after the night at the tavern, while O’s were being taken out of books and out of signs, so that the cw jumped over the mn, and the dish ran away with the spn, and the clockshop became a clckshp, the toymaker a tymaker, Black issued new searching orders.
James Thurber, The Wonderful O, 9-10

Twitteree Recommendations Wanted

I signed up for Twitter a year ago. I haven’t used it much. Here is the sad state of things:

I’ve made one post a year ago just to try it out, but now I have 888 followers. I have no idea who these are, because I’ve never made a second twitter. I am sure when I finally do post my second tweet, half will leave because they’ll feel I am twittering too frequently.

The reason I don’t twitter myself is I don’t know what a good twitterer is. Before I started blogging I began reading the best blogs so I could then write what I would like to read. I don’t read great twitters so I am ignorant of what I want to do.

All you active twitters out there can help me, and in turn help others who are on the fence about Twitter. I’d like recommendations for fabulous twitterees to follow. I’ll follow them for a while and then I’ll report back to Cool Tools on any (if any) that seem worthwhile.

There seem to be two kinds of twitterees. 1) People you already know, and are following as friends. The more intimate the better. 2) People not your friends you are following because you think they may be interesting to follow. (I guess that is where my 800 followers come in.)

I am looking for recommendations for the latter. I seek to follow interesting twitterpeople I don’t know — someone a complete stranger like me would find witty, insightful, informative, amazing, useful or entertaining. Someone a stranger like you might like to follow. After all this is how blogs began.

If you follow someone like that and think others would benefit from their stream, please post their twitter name here in the comments (or email me). I know about Twellow and Twitterpak, two web sites that categorize Twitterees by supposed subject of interest, but I didn’t find them helpful at all. Few listed stuck to subjects and the better ones were not highlighted. It’s like reading a phone book. If there are other sites or people who are “reviewing” remarkable twitterees, please let me know.

It may be that this medium is not transportable to perfect strangers. We’ll see. If even one or two folks turn up who fit my criteria I will be amazed and grateful.

Again, who are the masters of Twitter? And is there a guide to them?

My Twitter handle is kevin2kelly in case I decide to make a second twitter.

-- KK  

Nutshell Cases

I did a lot of research into hip cases when trying to find one for my Palm TX five years back. These handmade leather cases not only look good, but they’re incredibly durable. Each one I’ve had has always outlasted each of my phones with very little sign of wear. Handmade from a single piece of leather, the cases are very supple. When empty they lie almost completely flat. When the case is new, the fit is a little snug. And although the case does relax over time, it’s never enough to allow your phone to slip out. I’ve had cases with and without a top flap. Neither my Blackberry nor my Nokia ever fell out of the case despite there being no top flap (note: Blackberry cases also include the “magic magnet” that signals a Blackberry so it knows when it’s in a case).

With my first case I went with a belt loop model because I thought it’d be more secure than the multi-way clip. Since there’s no way to remove the case without removing your belt, I switched to the belt clip with my second case. Turns out the clip is rock solid and incredibly secure. Really keeps the case in much closer to the body so it doesn’t get knocked about as much as other swivel-clip cases. Anything that’s going to get my case off my belt is likely going to have to take a large part of the belt — and possibly a bit of the hip — with it.

A little pricey, but not compared to other high-end, leather cases. From time to time you can also find coupons that’ll knock 10% off. Incredibly well made and worth every penny. I now budget the cost of the case whenever I consider a new cell phone and I even just fired an email to Nutshell asking when they’ll have a G1 case in stock. I should add that I’ve been able to reuse some of the cases with devices of similar size.

Available in various colors, though I always go with black. Made in New Zealand, they typically take less than 10 days to get to me in the U.S.

-- Chris Dollmont  

Nutshell Cases $50 (Nokia E65 - pic above) Available from Nutshell Other models/devices also available from Nutshell

Wi-Ex ZBoost 510

This cell phone booster will increase your signal strength by one or two bars. If your home or office has dismal cell phone coverage, as mine does, this booster can make a difference. Often a spot outside your building, or on top of your building will have better coverage. This device picks up the signal from a small stick-like antenna and relays it via a cable to a book-size station where you want the signal. Using this in my studio I can now get two bars where before I had none. The zBoost is the least expensive signal repeater I could find.

A few important caveats. This is not a miracle machine; if you have no bars outside, there is no signal to amplify, so you will still have none inside. Also, the antenna and relay station need to be separated by a wall or ceiling or several rooms so that you do not simply create a feedback loop where the antenna is recirculating the stations emissions, creating a useless squelch. Lastly, the radius of boosted signal is small. It can serve a large room, or maybe a few small rooms. In my experience it will not fill a home, or office with a boosted signal. It is best to think of this as providing a boost to a room. To cover a large area you’ll need more than one, but I don’t have any experience in what happens with overlapping coverage.


I have the dual spectrum variety of EZBooster, which covers most carriers, in part as a service to visitors. I also found that finding the optimal location for the antenna is not obvisous or trivial. Placement makes a huge difference; it’s worth trying all kinds of positions. Sometimes attics and corners of rooms will work, and sometimes near windows are NOT better. There’s a 50-foot interconnecting white coaxil cable which should be long enough, but can be ugly.

For years I’ve tried to get my local cell phone companies to boost the signal in our neighborhood, but with no success. This modest gadget at least gives me coverage in my home office.

-- KK  

Wi-Ex ZBoost YX 510

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Repeater Store

This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Grand Central


Referring to the Mini Phone Recorder and the request for web-based recording solutions, I’ve been using Grand Central and Free Conference Call to record calls for a few months now. Both are free services, with Free Conference Call giving you the option to record calls between many many callers (up to 96 callers at the same time!). It works great, like, and registration is open to all. However, I really prefer Grand Central (owned by Google). The service’s main benefit is that you can route multiple numbers through one line. But it’s rather easy to record calls; you simply press 4, either from the moment you pick up or at specific times for parts. The call archives to your Grand Central Inbox, and you have the option of forwarding it on via email and also downloading it as an mp3. I prefer Grand Central because they provide you with an actual number people can call you at, and allow calls to that number to be forwarded to any other phones you have. This is especially useful in business situations or when you need to give out a number online. I mostly give the number to friends and family so that when they need to find me they just call that number and it will ring the places where I mostly am (home, cell phone, etc.), but I also use it when dealing with merchants who ask for a phone number so as to not give away a personal number. The added appeal of Grand Central is that you get email and/or SMS notifications whenever you have voicemail messages in the unlikely event that you miss the call. There’s also a “webcall” feature that allows you to initiate a call from the Grand Central web site and display that number (instead of your home/cell/work line) as caller ID to the person you are calling. The only downside is Grand Central is in beta and invite only last time I checked, but you can go online and request a number, and they’ll usually get you one in a few days.

– Ed Fonseca

When I requested a number from Grand Central, I received one the very next day. Once you’re in, you can invite 10 friends. I sent it to a few writer/journalist colleagues. Documenting interviews via cell phone on the fly is a truly remarkable development for any reporter, especially those used to being tethered to a desk with an old-fashioned phone tap. From the interviewee’s perspective, you always know when you’re being recorded because a voice prompt interrupts the call each time the interviewer presses 4. Grand Central has plenty of jazzy features — centralizing all your numbers alone is the main selling point — but eliminating the gray area of what’s on and off the record ranks high on my list. Also, just a reminder, the laws about recording on the phone vary by state in the US.

– Steven Leckart



[In 2009, Grand Central was discontinued and rolled into Google Voice. The features are different enough to warrant a new review. Please give us your feedback via the submit page. -- SL]

Mini Phone Recorder

For the last seven years, I’ve used the Mini Recorder Control to document every ‘phoner’ I’ve done as a freelance writer. Like the Recorder Control from Radio Shack, it acts as the go-between for a land line headset and any recorder with a 1/8″ mic jack. However, this one’s about about half the price. Since it’s light and compact, mine is always with me in a little pouch stuffed with a notebook, pens and a Griffin iTalk Pro that allows me to record direct to my iPod. Over time, I’ve upgraded from a desktop dictation machine to a handheld mini-cassette recorder to two different versions of the Griffin. The only item in my “bag of tricks” that hasn’t become obsolete or pooped out is the Mini Recorder Control. Interestingly, I found many of my colleagues in journalism school had independently discovered this exact gadget.

Mini Recorder Control $23 Available from Radio Shack
Previously available from Amazon

Goog(le) 411

Directory assistance has always wanted to be free. Since it launched six months ago, Google’s foray into phone-based information for business listings has become the easiest, quickest, most efficient free 411 I’ve used. I’m amazed more people don’t have it programmed into their phones. Best part: there are no pre-roll ads.

Another well-known option is 1-800-FREE411, but it can take 20 seconds before the “What city and state?” finally arrives. With GOOG-411, the same prompt is delivered in 4 seconds. Time is precious, but even more so if you’re on a conservative plan with limited minutes. For that same reason (read: frugality), I’m less inclined to use SMS-based 411 or Google SMS.

GOOG-411 also connects your call to the business for free, so there’s no need to jot down or memorize any digits. Dialing “411″ and paying $2 is like flipping through one of Ma Bell’s analog phone books when you’ve got a connected laptop right in front of you — an easily-remedied symptom of a bygone era.

1-800-GOOG-411 Available from Google

Reading Comics

Comic books, comics, graphic novels, or whatever you call them are not a genre, they’re a medium. Wolk emphasizes this from the outset of this vivid examination of the form and many of the geniuses and misfits of the American mainstream and avante-garde. Always frank, always insightful, Wolk, a former comic book store clerk, covers a lot of ground: pregnant moments, metacomics, parallel Earths, disposable Sunday strips, and, of course, how the world of comics can be “annoyingly male.” The first half of the book tackles history along with an overall assessment of what comics mean and how to read them. There are great bits about what makes a “superreader” and how the form blossomed despite the economics of limited shelf space. The second half is a series of precise essays on specific artists, including Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns and Steve Ditko. Critics often disparage contemporary artists or cite a myriad of ways their work could never compare with the classics of yesteryear. Wolk doesn’t pull punches, so that makes his optimism all the more appealing: he believes the next generation of cartoonists, currently coming of age with Manga, animation and those ‘classics,’ will soon be doing amazing work. Until that happens, this is the book to catch you up and understand much of where they’ll be coming from.

– Steven Leckart

Reading Comics
Douglas Wolk
2007, 371 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

No matter how far back you go, though, there’s always going to be something comicslike – if a bit less so with every step. There’s not much to be gained from that kind of ancestor seeking, other than a kind of validation that salves nothing but insecurity. Better, perhaps, to wave vaguely at the past and say that, yes, comics have been around for a good long time, and a lot of the formal conventions associated with the medium’s current state were solidified (although probably not created) in the early twentieth century. No genius gave birth to the form; it just coalesced.

Nostalgia, especially nostalgia for childhood, is a heavy burden for a medium to bear, and comics have been carrying it since the culture around them began to coalesce. The comics collecting market was called the ‘nostalgia market’ at first; The Comics Journal was renamed from The Nostalgia JournalŠ As far as thinking about what makes comics interesting, though, nostalgia is poison – no just because it makes people overvalue the stories that fueled their childhood fantasies but because it makes them misunderstand the reasons why the good stuff or even the resonant crap affected them so strongly, and what exactly might have been messed up about it, or the way it made them feel the first time around.

Once you’ve seen Steven Ditko’s hands, it’s hard to forget them. Not the hands of the famously private cartoonist himself – not many people have seen those. The hands he draws on his characters, though, are unmistakable: expressively gesticulating, fingers pointing in all directions, casting spells or shooting webs or passing judgment. Ditko doesn’t have as big a name outside comics’ inner circles as his reputation among cartoonists would suggest – there’ll never be an awards ceremony named after him – and his deliberately low profile has a lot to do with it. Insisting that his work speaks for itself, he’s refused to be photographed or interviewed since the early ’60s, and his prickly, loopy individualism has kept fame at bay. Still, he’s the ghost haunting the last forty years of American comic books. Over time, his incandescent drawing style darkened, clotted, and shriveled into something much less easy to like, but more like a product of the art-comics world to which he’s never suggested he feels any kinship. If his work has a single constant theme, it’s I’m Not Like Everybody Else.

Until the late ’60s, virtually all American comic books were published by a handful of large companies, because that was the only way they could claw their way onto the limited rack space at newsstands; no matter how expressive and creative a comic book was, it also had to be broadly commercially viable or there was no sense publishing it. The fact that unsold comics were returned to the publisher meant that a not-especially-successful issue could be a financial disaster. And a print run of five thousand or ten thousand copies of a comic was unthinkable – there would have been no where to sell it. That began to change in the ’60s, as the counterculture created an informal network of head shops and record stores that were prime outlets for selling ‘underground comix’ – mostly black-and-white, artist-driven comics that mainly showed off their countercultural credentials by being as transgressive as possibleŠ In the mid-’70s, largely as a result of the efforts of a guy named Phil Seuling, comics ‘direct market’ came into being. Distributors made deals with comics publishers to sell comics to specialty stores earlier than newsstands got them and for a deeper discount than newsstands got, but on a nonreturnable basis. Newsstands and drugstores, the traditional venues for comics, had no use for old issues once the new ones came out, so they’d tear the covers off comics that didn’t sell and return them to distributors for credit, as with any other magazine. Comics stores, which knew their market, could order exactly as many copies of each title as they figured they could use, and whatever didn’t sell before the next issue appeared could always be sold later for a bit of a markup. The direct market transformed the comics industry, although it took a few years before cartoonists figured out how to use it to their advantage.
People talk about ‘graphic novels’ instead of comics when they’re trying to be deferential or trying to imply that they’re being serious. There’s always a bit of a wince and stammer about the term; it plays into comics culture’s slightly miserable striving for ‘acknowledgment’ and ‘respect.’ It’s hard to imagine what kind of cultural capital the American comics industry (and its readership) is convinced that it’s due and doesn’t already have. Perhaps the comics world has spent so long hating itself that it can’t imagine it’s not still an underdog. But demanding (or wishing for) a place at the table of high culture is an admission that you don’t have one; the way you get a place at the table of high culture is to pull up a chair and say something interesting.

There’s a certain kind of rain that falls only in comics, a thick, persistent drizzle, much heavier than normal water, that bounces off whatever it hits, dripping from fedoras, running slowly down windowpanes and reflecting the doom in bad men’s hearts. It’s called an ‘eisenshpritz,’ and it’s named after the late Will Eisner, one of the preeminent stylists of twentieth-century comics, who never drew a foreboding scene that couldn’t be made a little more foreboding with a nice big downpour. Eisner deserves his veneration in the comics world. He was one of the most gifted, innovative storytellers American comics have produced, and his work has had a lasting impact on the aesthetics and the economics of the medium. The comics industry’s annual awards are named after Eisner; until his death in 2005, its honorees had the thrill of being handed an Eisner Award by Eisner himself. (I was one of the award’s judges in 2001 an have never been starstruck as badly as I was meeting him.)

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:

READING_making comics.jpg

Making Comics


The 911 Report: A Graphic Adaptation


Cartoon History of the Universe III



DailyLit sends you bite-sized chunks of public domain books (including many classics) daily, on weekdays, or three times a week via email or RSS — for free. Each serving takes less than five minutes to read, and if you want, they’ll send you the next installment right away if you click a link. So far, I’ve read “Bartleby, the Scrivner” — 18 segments over the course of 3 weeks or so — and I just signed up for Crime and Punishment – more than 240 segments! Yes, it may take 9 months to read, but I’m certainly more likely to finish it this way. I read them in my email reader (Thunderbird) and don’t print them out. The whole idea is to read short segments for a few minutes in your spare time. I’d imagine it would work well on a PDA or Blackberry if you have one (I don’t); if you have a long cab ride or something you can get the next segment immediately.

-- Jonathan Fromme