Benjamin Moore Aura Paint


When my husband and I moved into our new apartment recently, we knew a coat of fresh paint would spiff up the place, but with a new baby we wanted to pay special attention to the kind of paint we used. Unlike a lot of VOC-free paints (VOC = volatile organic compounds), Benjamin Moore’s Aura line of low-VOC acrylic paints isn’t thin or runny, dries really fast (literally an hour or less) and it’s available in a satisfying array of colors in eggshell, matte, satin, and semi-gloss. It’s VOC rating is less than 50 grams per liter (a standard paint might have 250 grams; VOC-free paints can still have up to 5 grams per liter). The Aura paint isn’t cheap — I think we spent $10-15 more per gallon than we normally do — but I have always been partial to more expensive paints because the colors appear truer and, in many cases, they require just one coat. With Aura, we found even the deepest of wall colors only required two coats to cover, and we didn’t use primer. The best part is there was no stinky paint smell residue, only beautifully-painted walls to gaze at with our little one.

-- Amanda Hughes-Watkins  

Benjamin Moore Aura Paint
(1 gallon)
Available from Moores Hardware

Or search for a retailer via zip code (top right)

Manufactured by Benjamin Moore

Subhead Grip Stickers


Why sacrifice style for safety? Subhead grip stickers are an attractive, very effective, functional alternative to regular, boring, anti-slip tape. For the last year, I’ve been using the star-shaped stickers on some wooden steps outside my home. Just recently, I affixed the skull stickers to some rattan sticks I use for martial arts. And in the near future, I’m planning to add some fleur de lis stickers to some other steps. High foot traffic areas also experience a lot of visual traffic — walkways, pool decks, boat decks, ship ladders, etc. Most anti-slip tape is that boring rectangular stuff, long black or yellow grip strips that, to me, sometimes look too industrial or institutional for a home, garden and even some businesses. Instead, these come in fun, eye-catching designs that will also draw people’s visual attention, potentially making it even more effective than standard rectangular anti-slip tape. I imagine some people would prefer to make homemade stickers/designs, but quite honestly, I lack the dexterity, patience, & hand strength to be able to create detailed, attractive & consistently-sized/shaped stickers (ironic given that I practice martial arts, I know). Still, I am certain if I tried to make the stars, my versions would look like an injured sea star or Dali-inspired Rorschach blots. It’s much easier to just click and buy these.

-- Linda Matsumi  

Subhead Grip Stickers
Available from Subhead Grip


HP OfficeJet Pro K5400 Printer


As everyone knows, manufactures give away printers almost free in exchange for the steady revenue of expensive, tiny ink cartridges. That’s the “give the razor, sell the blades” strategy for the new economy, and it works. I use my printer less and less, but I still print enough pages in a year to go through an alarming number of high-priced disposable ink cartridges. The pain is not just overpriced cartridges; the machines rarely allow cartridges to fully empty, vastly decreasing their actual efficiency. (See this PC World article which says as much as 60% of the ink is wasted.)

I’m sick of surrendering to this economically and environmentally costly habit, so I set out to find the most cost-effective inkjet printer I could find.

Printer models are on a fast cycle of obsolescence, so there is little across-the-board comprehensive testing for ink cartridge efficiency. Based on manufacturer’s specs and the comparative testing by PC World magazine, my research points to the HP Officejet K5400 as having the most cost-efficient ink supply right now. The estimated cost per page of black ink for the K5400 is 1.4 cents, and color is 5.9 cents per page. My previous printer ran 10 times that. I have not been able to find a lower page rate for any other desktop machine.

The bulkier the ink container the more likely the cost per page will be lower. In my studio I have a workhorse of a printer, the Epson 3000, now 15 years old, that uses big fat bulk ink cartridges. I use this industrial printer for printing large scale photographs, but I can print a decade’s worth of office printing on a single cartridge — and have. You can buy one of these venerable machines used, and still get cartridges, but the beast is the size of one-yard steamer trunk. It’s overkill for most folks. Alternatively, there are kits which you can purchase to modify your desktop printer using fine capillary tubes connected to exterior ink bottles to drastically lower ink costs. Yeah, it works, but it’s a messy hack, and you’d need to be printing a real lot to warrant it.

The Officejet K5400 is a decent compromise. It costs $130 (as I write). I’ve been using it for three months now and am delighted with its performance. It prints extremely fast, faster than any desktop printer I’ve seen. It runs reliably, and prints with near laser-quality for office stuff. It’s not the ideal photo printer, but does okay. Most importantly, judging from the ink status box, after 3 months I still have 80% of the ink in the first set of cartridges left. But this unit is not small. It’s about the size of a roller carry-on luggage. I expect to get 10 years out of it.

A true evaluation of printing costs should include the cost of the printer, amortized over the number of pages printed in its lifetime. For some people with very minimal printing needs, the price of expensive ink cartridges is canceled by the zero cost of a free printer. Go for it! For those who need to print more, such as contracts, manuscripts, maps and other currently unavoidable paper copies, the HP Officejet 5400 is the most cost-efficient way to deal with ink.

-- KK  

HP OfficeJet Pro K5400 Printer

Available from Amazon

Or $150+ via Google Shopping Manufactured by HP

Recycled Chopstick Folding Baskets

These ingenious collapsible baskets are made out of recycled chopsticks. Beyond the “green” aspect, we love them because they fold flat, so they’re easy to put away. Very transportable for camping and potlucks. They come in four sizes. We have a Large Tea Stained one that is out on the kitchen counter year round for fruit and veggies, and a Medium Natural basket for the overflow during the summer. They hold a lot of fruit, which doesn’t seem to spoil as quickly because of the airy design — makes it easy to clean, too. We have given several as gifts and notice they get used.

-- Kelly Powers  

Recycled Chopstick Folding Baskets
$15+, depending on size
Available from Kwytza Kraft

Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World

Trevor Paglen is a thorn in Uncle Sam’s side. Known for snapping telephoto candids of CIA planes and Area 51, the artist also gathers “patch intel,” which he’s collected in this provocative book (main title: “I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me”). The fruit of several Freedom of Information Act requests, Paglen’s book proves that classified black opps concoct esoteric team insignias just like other military divisions. In this case, 75 de-classified patches with colorful eagles, skulls, swords, dragons, wizards and even aliens (!). Surveying iconography that was never intended for your eyes is both exhilarating and frustrating. Decoding them is often impossible, which only leads back to the obvious: How else are our tax dollars being spent in secret? Unlike grainy, questionable YouTube clips of UFOs, Big Foot and Loch Ness, in this case, seeing guarantees believing.

I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World
Trevor Paglen
136 pages, 2007

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

“Triangulum” is reported to designate a variation on the RS6b SENIOR SPEAR sensor system built into some versions of the U-2 spy plane. The Triangulum system allegedly uses twelve antennas along the aircrafts’ fuselage and an antenna on each wing.

The Electronic Warfare Directorate is the primary EW test organization at Edwards Air Force Base. Electronic warfare consists of defensive and offensive avionics and includes the so-called “Infowar” revolution in military technologies Commenting on information-warfare, Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper told Aviation Week and Space Technology that “we’re rapidly approaching the time when you can tell an SA-10’s [surface-to-air missile system] radar that it’s a Maytag washer and put it in the rinse cycle instead of the firing cycle.” The first letter of each word in the phrase “Nitwits Rubes and Oafs” spells out the agency responsible for this patch: the NRO, the National Reconnaissance Office. Furthermore, “OAFS” could be an acronym for Onizuka Air Force Station, an Air Force Space Operations base in Sunnyvale, California colloquially known as the Blue Cube. It is unclear what the collection of three white stars and one black star represent, although they may be related to the collection of four triangles from the NRO’s “We Own the Night” patch…The phrase “Setec Astronomy” figures prominently in the 1992 film “Sneakers,” in which the phrase is an anagram for “Too Many Secrets.”

This patch is from the Phillips Laboratory Military Spaceplane Technology (MiST) Program Office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The original version of the patch sported an “X-Wing” fighter from the Star Wars movies. When lawyers representing George Lucas delivered the unit a cease and desist order, the aircraft on the patch was changed into the shape that appears in this patch.

The letters ATOP depicted on this patch stand for “Advanced Technology Observation Platform,” whose first flight was on October 28, 1990. The Latin phrase “Furtim Vigilans” translates as “Vigilance Through Stealth.” No further information about this patch or program is known. Officials at the Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base claim that the program depicted “isn’t one of ours.”

This was the original version of a patch commemorating a flight test series involving a B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber. The lower case Greek sigma symbol on the test shape’s outline signifies the unknown RCS value. The number “509” refers to the 509th Bomb Wing, which operates the United States’ stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The alien is a reference to the 509th’s lineage. In 1947, the 509th was based at Roswell, New Mexico, home of the infamous “Roswell incident,” which ensued after the 509th’s commander, Col. William Blanchard, issued a press release whose headline stated “Roswell Army Airfield Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region.” The dog-Latin phrase “Gustasus Similis Pullus” translates as “Tastes Like Chicken.” Note the knife and fork. This patch was eventually modified when Air Force officials insisted that the phrase “Classified Flight Test” could not appear on the design. In an updated version of the patch, “Classified Flight Test” has been replaced with the words “To Serve Man,” referencing a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:


Dictionary of Symbols

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Representation

Nudie the Rodeo Tailor


This photo-driven book documents the life and work of legendary tailor Nudie Cohn, whose eccentric pieces of wearable art were worn by countless country, rock and pop musicians, everyone from Elvis to Elton John. The free-for-all that is Japanese street fashion is undeniably more outlandish, but if you keep in mind how Nudie made everyone look like Liberace (even macho country boys in the conservative ’50s!), his work becomes all the more inspiring. There are numerous, thicker retrospectives with glossy snapshots of flashy rodeo wear, but this is the only book that focuses entirely on Nudie.

His story is so enticing I don’t know why no one’s written a comprehensive, narrative non-fiction biography about him: After immigrating from Russia, he became an amateur boxer, spent time hitchhiking coast to coast and eventually started fashioning clothes and costumes out of his garage in the ’40s. If you’re a serious seamster or occasional stitch ‘n bitcher, his embroidery will get your juices flowing. If you’re a home crafter or tinkerer with big aspirations, here’s another fine example of what’s possible.

Nudie the Rodeo Tailor
Mary Lynn Cabrall & Jamie Lee Nudie
2004, 160 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:


Brother Sewing Machine




Tiny Showcase


Keeping tabs on the art world is tough and time-consuming. Being a collector is tougher, and downright expensive. This site does all the work for you and allows you to amass your own hip, limited edition prints for cheap. Sign up for the newsletter and once a week you’ll receive a heads up about the artist whose work will be available later that day for $20 a pop. They usually make only 100-200 prints and it’s first come, first serve. The first piece I bought on a lark sold out in less than 15 minutes! I discovered the site nine months ago when a friend gave me a gift certificate. Although I’ve already spent my gifted wad, I still check the newsletter religiously, almost obsessively. Stumbling on amazing art(ists) is wonderful. Decorating our home with little, unique prints is very satisfying. Part of every purchase is donated to a charity chosen by the artist, too. (more…)

Tiny Showcase
Available at

Bathsheba Mathematical Sculpture

The Gyroid

Cool and useless. That’s my definition of art. These very cool 3D mathematical sculptures by Bathsheba Grossman are very nerdy art. Cleverly manufactured by a new type of 3D printing, they manifest bizarre mathematical notions. Bathsheba starts with her own complicated CAD designs, which she then sends to an Ex One printer. The printer stacks up layers of stainless steel powder hardened with a laser. Bathsheba trims and polishes each final form by hand. Lot’s of brilliant designs, some like alien seeds. Others are like Escher paradoxes in 3D. These mini ones are only a few inches wide, and not cheap. It’s art. It’s mathematics. Many are shapes never before made or even imagined — simply because they were impossible to render before. Bathsheba also does laser etched images deep inside of glass crystal. Check her news blog for some really dazzling larger pieces. I’ve ordered several things from her and have been happy.

-- KK  

Beth Sheba Mini Sculptures
Available from Bathsheba Sculpture


The Self-Made Tapestry

The most comprehensive, and most comprehendable analysis of patterns in nature and the nature of patterns.

-- KK  

The Self-Made Tapestry
Pattern Formation in Nature
Philip Ball
1998, 324 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

The Paris Metro is a branched network with a fractal form.


When shaken vertically, a shallow layer of grains can develop complex wave patterns, including stripes, square and hexagonal patterns.


The adult zebra Equus grevyi (b) has more and narrower stripes than the adult Equs burchelli (a). This is thought to be because the striped ‘pre-pattern’ is laid down on the embryo of the latter at an earlier stage: after twenty-one days for Equus burchelli (c), but after five weeks for Equus grevyi (e). The smaller embryo supports fewer stripes, and so by the time it is of comparable size (d), its stripes are wider.

Speed Square

This is the best tool for drawing lines, guiding saws, and basically all carpentry that requires a 90 degree angle. One edge is set perpendicular to the rest of it so you can quickly push it up against a straight side and have a 45 degree angle and a 90 degree angle to mark or saw with, etc. Hard to explain, but once you have one, you won’t know how you lived without it.

— Peter Lawrence

A good metal square is an essential tool for home building, especially framing. It helps you figure out rafter cuts quickly and easily, and it also has a ruler for quick measurements.

There are a number of different models of square out there, but Swanson’s Speed® Square is the best. Why? Well, sturdy aluminum alloy construction makes it nigh indestructible, and the recessed tick marks and numbers are colored in black so there’s good contrast for legibility.

The metal construction also makes it super-handy for making square cuts on lumber. Just snug it up and use it as a guide for your circular saw. Plus, all this utility fits in the pocket of work pants without any trouble.

-- Keith Pelczarski  

Swanson Speed Square
SO101 7 inches

Available from Amazon