Vibram FiveFingers

These shoes allow you to walk with a barefoot gait, without a bare foot, avoiding the injuries that could sideline you. Rocks piercing the foot or breaking a toe on a curb is the end of a barefoot experiment, so I’m looking at this as an urban stepping stone to barefoot hiking when I’m better conditioned and more aware.

The flexible but rugged soles force you to adopt a more natural bio-mechanical stride. Rather than landing on your heel, as we’re accustomed to doing with cushioned soles, you land on the mid-foot or ball of the foot. This gait is less stressful on your knees and forces you to place the “strikepoint” of your foot beneath your hips, which also means you initiate forward movement with a lean instead of leg drive. The shoes’ toe channels don’t cause any discomfort, though I have found the five-channeled Injinji brand socks somewhat uncomfortable to wear beneath them, as the stitching pulls into the webbing between the toes.

The added articulation of the Vibram FiveFingers strengthens your metatarsal ligaments and muscles, which is noticeable in general balance and, oddly enough, upper body pressing strength. Since wearing these shoes every other day (every day can create arch and heel soreness) for two weeks — which took some adjustment in my walking style — I have almost eliminated lower back pain that started several years ago. I attribute this to the lack of elevated heel, which projects your knees forward and affects posture, often encouraging lordosis.

Within minutes of wearing these shoes there is a surprising new awareness of the ground, and a sense of tactile awakening. After all, when is the last time you walked on grass or any surface barefoot for more than a few minutes? I’m rediscovering the most natural means of bipedal movement in the world, which — in a concrete jungle — is a forgotten skill, and a forgotten joy.

-- Tim Ferriss  

Vibram FiveFingers
$60+
Available from Kayak Shed

Manufactured by Vibram



Home Exchanges

In the past seven years I’ve had 10 occasions to exchange my home with others. Home exchanges, in my opinion, are the logical extension of the “sharing is better than owning” philosophy. I’ve gotten to use 10 neat homes around the world and pay not a penny for the privilege of living there. And 10 counterparts have gotten the same deal in my home. Exchanging houses is indeed “better than owning.”

I live in California’s wine country, 65 miles from San Francisco. I’ve exchanged with families in Seattle; New York City (twice); upstate New York; France (Paris, Avignon, the Loire and the Pyrenees) and so on. I’ve just concluded arrangements for a July exchange in Copenhagen and hope to arrange two more exchanges for 2009. My experiences have been uniformly good.

The way I analyze it, house exchanges typically save money four ways:

1. House exchange = no hotel or rental cost;
2. Car exchange (common) = no rental car fees;
3. Access to a full kitchen = less need to rely on restaurants;
4. Cellphone exchange = no hassles with establishing a new phone or expensive overseas roaming charges.

House exchanges reduce the cost of vacations to essentially the transportation cost to get to the destination and admissions fees to museums, parks, etc.

I’ve found my exchange partners (or they’ve found me) because we jointly belong to one or more of the many exchange databases that have blossomed on the Internet. I’ve successfully used two of them, Intervac and HomeLink. There are many others — homeexchange.com, homeforhome.com, sabbaticalhomes.com — but I’ve not found an occasion to use them.*

The various services have different strengths. Each claims, one way or another, to be the biggest and the best, but it’s hard to find numbers to corroborate the claims. Arthur Frommer says HomeLink is the largest, followed by Intervac. Homeexchange.com claims 26,000 listings, but it seems thinner to me than either HomeLink or Intervac. Homeforhome has 500 listings in Spain, about 500 in other countries. The database engines vary enormously in their ease of use. Intervac seems to have about 1/3 of its members in the U.S., 1/3 in France, where I visit often, and 1/3 elsewhere. HomeLink seems to have more U.S. users (it claims the opposite) and more of them retired, like me, and hence more available to go during non-holiday periods.

Intervac and HomeLink work similarly (they began as one in 1953): you pay roughly $95-$120 annually to list your home and its attributes in the database (print catalogs are available, but cost extra). In turn you get to see and search others’ listings. Non-members can typically preview the database or a subset of it, but don’t get exchangers’ contact information. All show multiple pictures, if available. I pay careful attention to the interior photos, for they offer important information. My first exchange, for example, had horrible, uncomfortable furniture. Had I really paid attention to the photos I would have noticed that.

After joining members contact others directly via phone, mail or email. I’m an aggressive marketer: I’ll contact 15-20 members at a time, sometimes more if time is short. The services aren’t brokers, merely information providers. There is no additional fee paid to the service and most typically no money changes hands between exchangers.

Exchange arrangements can be whatever both parties agree to: a simultaneous exchange, or non-simultaneous, even a three-way exchange. I’m doing a non-simultaneous exchange in June, using a North Shore Chicago townhouse while the owners are at their vacation home. They’ll use my home in October when I’ll be on a road trip.

Exchangers typically prepare a book or document that lists important phone numbers, who to contact, what food and wine to eat, what not to use and so on. It’s important to have a local person who can check in your exchangers and act in your stead should a problem come up. All the services have suggestions and guidelines for first-time exchangers. The one at homeexchange.com is both typical and pretty good.

Obviously, it’s easiest to exchange if you live in a popular spot and have a beautiful well-furnished home or apartment. But there are all kinds of listings. The important thing, in my opinion, is to pay close attention to the photos and text and try to exchange like-for-like. I don’t try to exchange my home for a French chateau (though I did get a 16th-century farmhouse); and I am no longer enchanted by tiny run-down apartments in out-of-the-way locales.

In my experience, most people are fascinated with the notion of home exchanges and say they want to join in. But few end up doing so, even though willing exchange partners are plentiful. The problem seems to be a psychological hurdle: trusting strangers to take care of one’s home and belongings. This certainly does require a certain leap of faith, and it’s probably not for the anal and those not used to adaptation, but it’s worked for me.

-- Roger Karraker  

Sample Excerpts:
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*Note: if you have used any of these or any other house exchange web sites and can report positively or negatively, please let us know in the comments below the review or via the submit page. — Steven Leckart




Kahtoola Microspikes

When I met up with my normal winter hiking crew this season, everybody but me had Microspikes. After I fell twice on the icey trail (and I’m an agile hiker!), I came out of it with three gouges on my left hand. So I went ahead and got a pair. The next weekend we did an 8.5 mile hike on trails that were 30 percent ice. I wore my Microspikes, as did all but one of the other ten hikers. We saw only one other person farther up the mountain — a thin, gray-haired trailrunner with headphones on. As he zoomed past with a nod and a smile, I saw he was also wearing Microspikes. The first time I was able to run down a completely ice-covered hiking trail and feel secure, I said, “That alone was worth it right there!”

Prior to purchasing the Microspikes, I vetted them against other products in the same category, including the previously-reviewed Yaktrax or STABILicers. At $60 retail (I found mine for $44), Microspikes are expensive, but for anyone out on real trails, they’re the best. Yaktrax are the low-end, low-durability cheap version. STABILicers’s cleats are OK (and fine for walkways and everday use, as the previous reviewer says), but for more rugged terrain, the Microspikes are preferable. Easy to put on, they’re much lighter than STABILicers (14.4 oz vs. 28.5 oz for a comparable size — almost a full pound lighter!). They also grip ice much better. I’m not speaking from direct experience; just echoing the voice of experience I discovered from my research. BackpackGearTest’s reports alone were particularly convincing. I’ve actually run and tried my best to slide with them on, but just cannot at all. Still, they are low profile enough that you can wear them on all trail conditions aside from persistent rock/pavement.

Of course, none of these products are intended to compete with crampons, which excel in exceptionally-high vertical grades and when ice is very hard. They do not have the flexibility in range of use that Microspikes do, however, and are much heavier. Microspikes are not ghetto crampons either; they’re the best of a set of products that fill a different, more diverse niche.

While Microspikes are tough, they’re not without their flaws: they can gather snow under some conditions, do not provide any additional edging and some people report rubber grommet failures/tears over time. In the case of the latter, Kahtoola will ship a replacement pair to you — and if you’ve sent in the undamaged one with the damaged one, they will even send the good one back to you so you’ll have a spare.

Honestly, I was hoping to find a better-competing product to the Microspikes. It’s unusual to find such a monopoly in hiking/backpacking stuff. But I believe they have risen to prominence for a reason.

-- Adam Skinner  

Kahtoola Microspikes
$50

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Kahtoola



UNTRIED

Cool Tools Untried look cool, but — buyer beware — may seem cooler than they actually are. Neither I nor any of our reviewers has actually used the items below, so we can’t endorse them or speak from experience. If you have used any of these and can report (positively or negatively) — or if you have a similar item you love — please let us know in the comments below or via our submit page. Until then, here’s some intriguing stuff — Steven Leckart

Bioline
Available from Go Fast and Light

Biodegradable fishing line that functions like typical fishing line, but supposedly breaks up fully after five years (and even sooner, it wears down enough that a trapped fish can break free — again, that’s the claim). The company also manufactures dissolving medical sutures.

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(Thanks Padraig!)

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Presto Planter
Available from Clean Air Gardening

Auger attachment for power drill to help prep soil for seeds and bulbs.

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EcoBee Smart Thermostat
Available from EcoBee

Programmable home climate control with a slick touchscreen interface.

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Lifesaver Water Bottle
Available from LIFESAVER

H20 bottle with an integrated, replaceable carbon filter and pump.

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(Thanks Rob!)

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1-Step Metric Conversion Calculator
Available from Amazon

Enables quick metric conversions, when you’re on site and/or offline.

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Peltor Ear Muffs for Hard Hats
Available from Ear Plug Store

Helmet-ready ear protection.

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ULINE Scooter Cart
Available from ULINE

A worker’s comp disaster in the making? Maybe. No doubt a fun way to speed up the stock room, though.

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USB Cell
Available from USB Cell

AA Batteries that recharge via USB.

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Jonard Electrician Scissors

When I used to work on cabling (fiber optic and copper) in the field, I found the most frequent tool I reached for was my electrician’s scissors. Over the years, there have been a few “improved” versions, but nothing is nearly as comfortable and useful as the old, all-metal kind. Heavy, thick and blunt, these can take a lot of abuse and can do a lot more than cut. They have two notches for stripping small cables jackets. The edges on the backs of the blades are great for filing and scraping.

Since they are very rounded and short you can carry them in your pocket easily, but they’re still big enough to hold comfortably. A shortcoming of Leatherman-like tools is that getting out the scissors can be a pain. When you need scissors, usually you only have a single free hand. These fix that problem. I always have a pair on me. I now mostly use them for clipping cable ties, cutting lengths of string and rope, opening boxes, trimming plants around the house, and especially opening blister-packs. For my work, they were perfect for lacing down structured cabling and dressing cables into a computer or telco rack. We have to scrape paint from the racks to get to bare metal in order to fasten grounding cables, so the filing part of the scissor is a real help. Almost nothing does as good as a job at quick paint-scraping for small areas — and I’ve tried everything from 5-1 tools to a Dremel.

There are a variety of brands that still manufacture old-fashioned electrician scissors. Klein’s are easy to find in Home Depot, etc. The Jonard’s aren’t as common, but they’re a bit beefier, have a blunted point that won’t snap off, and a real nice edge on the back side.

– Andrew Metcalf

Jonard Electrician Scissors
$11
Available from Grainger

Previously available from Amazon

Manufactured by Jonard Industries Corp.

 



 

COOL TOOLS UNTRIED

Cool Tools Untried look cool, but — buyer beware — may seem cooler than they actually are. Neither I nor any of our reviewers have actually used the items below, so we can’t endorse them or speak from experience. If you have used any of these and can report (positively or negatively) — or if you have a similar item you love — please let us know. Until then, here’s some intriguing stuff.

– Steven Leckart

Optx 20/20 Soft Reading Lenses
Reusable stick-on bi-focals

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Available from Optx 20/20 and Amazon

(thanks Dean!)

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Digital Nutrition Scale
Precision dieting

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Available from EatSmart and Amazon

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Glo Glov
Safety reflective gloves

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Available from Glo Glov

(via Bike Hugger)

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Dexpan
Controlled, non-explosive demolition agent

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Available from Archer Company and Amazon

(thanks David!)

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The Solar Food Dryer
DIY sun-powered grub dehydration

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Available from Amazon

(via Mother Earth News)

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Cost Controller Power Strip
Digitally displays power consumption in kilowatt hours

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Available from Computer Gear

(via EcoGeek)

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Knot Tying Cards
Key-ring size knot instructions

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Available from Brigade Quartermasters

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World Pro Instant Air
Portable pneumatic system

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Available from World Tools and Amazon

See here for a video demo

(thanks Drew!)

Related items previously reviewed on Cool Tools:

COOL TOOLS UNTRIED – 2003

COOL TOOLS UNTRIED – 2004

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FuBar Demolition Tool

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Smart Power Strip

 



Mistake-Proofing

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Mistakes are NOT inevitable, but the logical consequences of remediable design. As such, it’s so much easier to avoid them than to correct them, especially if each one becomes a link in a chain of events that go off the rails as a result. If I’d continued in academia, perhaps eventually chairing a department, I’d buy as many copies of this book as there were members of my department — faculty, residents, nurse anesthetists, medical students. It’s slim (72 pages) and easy to understand — no formal process(es) to follow. Instead, the book provides several seemingly simplistic but very useful rules of thumb anyone can adopt. As Chase & Stewart write: “You don’t need a Ph.D. in statistics to apply it. In reality, mistake-proofing is more like a structured form of common sense.” For example: “The key to creating mistake-proofing devices and procedures is not to do too much at once. Instead, concentrate on clever, inexpensive methods to check for only one mistake at a time. If you have two possible mistakes, develop two separate devices or procedures to catch them.” Right on!

– Joseph Stirt

Mistake-Proofing: Designing Errors Out
Richard B. Chase & Douglas M. Stewart
2008, 72 pages
$16 – print
Available from Amazon

$10 – download
Available from Lulu

Sample Excerpts

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The best way to ensure the detection of a mistake is to make sure that something in the environment makes it very obvious that one has been made. A good example of an environmental cue is the inevitable “extra” parts that remain after a do-it-yourself repair project. These parts make it very clear that you have not reassembled the item correctly.

*
Machine mistakes, being generally mechanical in nature, are better understand than human mistakes. They are, therefore, more predictable and easier to control. If we look closely at the different types of machine mistakes, we see that they fall into two categories: those mistakes we can see coming and those that catch us unaware.

*
Employees experience a continuous stream of encounters – one defect is a low failure rate. Customers experience a single defect as a 100% failure rate.

*
Toyota, which is very experienced at mistake-proofing, averages about twelve devices for each machine.

*
Go/No-Go gauges are not limited to the shop floor. Customers often use such gauges to detect and prevent mistakes. Some amusement park rides require riders to be above a certain height (so they do not slip through the safety restraints) or below a certain height (to keep larger people off of rides meant only for small children). Parks do not want customers to discover they are too small or large after waiting in a potentially very long line. By placing a gauge at he front of the line, customers can tell if they are tall enough (or short enough) to go on the ride without waiting in line.

*
Mistakes are random events and therefore we must continuously watch for them. Sampling is not good enough. It looks at only a small proportion of the outputs in a process.

*
Most importantly, mistake-proofing is the only method we know that includes customers’ actions in the quality control system. The importance of this is emphasized by one study that estimates that customers of services are responsible for one-third of the problems they complain about.

*
Remember that the goal is to develop clever, simple and inexpensive devices. Don’t immediately opt for the high-tech solution.

Related items previously reviewed on Cool Tools:

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Serious Play

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Peopleware

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Slack

 



How To Make Whips

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I got really into making whips back in 1998. Although this book arrived later in my whip hobby, in a short period of time, it really allowed my skills to skyrocket. It leaves no detail, big or small to the imagination. Mr. Edwards is a gifted craftsman, and his illustrations are only displaced when you see the real deal. He breaks down the various kinds of leather and their advantages and disadvantages for whipmaking, which saved me money and helped me choose the correct leather, sizes, and use up the best parts for the different pieces which make a whip. I even remember going as an 18 year-old to the tannery, and old men would be amazed at the way I chose the leather and knew what I wanted! The book teaches you pretty much every single term on whipmaking, which, in a way, also initiates you into the secrets of whipmaking.

It begins small (easy), and ends up big (complex). In this way, you grow little by little and a step at a time, growing in experience, knowledge and quality. There’s some insight into the lives of a few well known whipmakers, which makes you feel at home and part of the trade. The book’s versatile, too in that it not only focuses on a certain type of whip, but goes into many of the most popular. The book was clearly conceived in order to make you independent: you learn how to make your own tools, how to prepare your workplace, etc. This gives you a sense of responsibility, respect and control in this craft. And even once you’ve learned the craft of whips, this book can still serve as a great reference guide for future projects, since it contains a good amount of plaiting patterns and designs. I no longer make whips, which is truly a pity, but I’m now trying to get back into many of the crafts I did when I was younger, because they really fulfill me.

The only other books I’d recommend would be David Morgan’s Whips & Whipmaking. It teaches you about whips and history. Though there is a section on making a whip, at the time I went deep into the hobby, the edition available had a lack of images which made the book a bit difficult to use for practical purposes. A few years ago, a new edition came out with much more material, but I have not seen it yet. I should add that Mr. Morgan was always kind to lend me his advice and feedback every time I asked by email. Also, I believe it was actually Mr. Morgan who brought Bushcraft 9 to the U.S. after I told him I was working with it (mine was flown straight from Australia). From my own experience, I learned whipmaking takes perseverance… lots of it.

– Aldo Zamudio

How To Make Whips
Ron Edwards
1999, 166 pages
$17
Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Choosing the Leather

When choosing a side, it is best to avoid thick leather — try and get it around 2.5 to 3mm thick, and also make sure that it is not soft and spongy. Leather that is cut from the belly part of the hide is often very weak and will break easily when cut into strands.

On the other hand, thick leather is hard to plait well, and needs to be skived down. so, the aim is to go for leather that can be plaited nicely and that remains strong even in the thinnest sections.

Cut a narrow strip from the leather you are thinking about using, taper it down to a thin point, and then see how easily it breaks. If the break has a loose, hairy look about it, then the leather at that part of the hide is not good enough for whipmaking.

*
The section nearest the backbone is the best part of the hide, but sometimes this is a bit thick and may be better used for reins and similar jobs. The tanner divides the hide along the backbone before tanning, and the result is called a side. Leather is bought by the side.

*
Styles of Whip

There is no such thing as one correct length, width, or shape for a 4-strand whip. Some people want long thick whips, others want shorter, lighter whips. Both styles are equally correct and neither is better than the other; it is just a question of the intended use for the whip.

*

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*

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Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:

Leather Therapy

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The Art of the Stonemason

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The Complete Metalsmith

 



StudyPerfect

StudyPerfect is a flashcard program that’s easy to use and easy on the eyes. It will do all the normal tasks flashcard programs do (let you create and print cards, name the cards, study on the computer, etc.). But the program also lets you record images and sound on one card. If you are an auditory learner or learning a foreign language (I am and I recently brushed up on Spanish), then having the pronunciation with the text is extremely helpful. You can also place images and text on the same card, and it has a drag-and-drop numbering system, which is really helpful for labeling.

Because you can print, you get all the positives of doing it by hand (i.e. portability), but of course you also get all the positives of going digital: you can create cards very quickly (typing speed); you can hide cards, shuffle cards, combine and separate decks with the click of a button; you won’t ever lose the cards; you can add sound and symbols to the cards (again, great for languages); you don’t need glue to add images, diagrams or tables; you can quickly flip between cards (again, the click of a button); and you can share a deck of cards with your friends and still keep your own.

I tried a lot of card programs, including MemorizeIt, Flash Reader, Virtual FlashCards, and a few others. I’ve been using StudyPerfect almost a year now and this is the one I’m sticking with. I am in law school, so I try to create a few cards every weekend, but I’ll use the program for hours every day during a “dead week.” Compared to the other programs, the interface is simple, pretty and obviously professionally done. The buttons are large, and the images can even be zoomed so that you can have really big cards to study. And unlike MemoryLifter, which was actually ok in some respects, StudyPerfect isn’t too complex for my daughter’s attention span. She has been using it for most of her 8th grade classes (history, science, math, and English) — she probably uses the program about twice a month, but prints the cards and uses them every week.

When I emailed them to praise the product, I received a very prompt reply thanking me for my interest and asking if there were other features I would be interested in seeing in the future. I suggested an export to MP3 so I can put cards on my iPod and listen to them while I work out, and the support guy said it was already on their list. I also found out there are several schools that buy StudyPerfect for all their students. The only downside is that currently it’s only available for PCs.

– Brandon Beam

StudyPerfect
$25
Available from LuminareSoft

Or download a free trial

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:

Rosetta Stone Language Learning

Where There’s a Will There’s an A

French In Action

 



 

KK Lifestream

This is not a cool tool. This is an advertisement for my blog. I call it my Lifestream because it channels into one super-blog all the streams of my writing and clicking that appear elsewhere.

In addition to Cool Tools, which is now almost 5 years old, I also review great documentaries at True Films, and user-modified technology at Street Use, and post notes from my research on what technology wants at The Technium. In recent weeks I’ve added a few more venues, one about trends and current topics (CT2), and another on self-knowledge (The Quantified Self). I also post regularly on GeekDad (nerdy things to do with kids), and on Long Now’s blog monitoring long term perspectives.

That’s a lot for me to keep track of, let alone anyone else. So I have gathered all those bloggy bits into one channel which you can find at KK*. Rather than hop around from blog to blog, you can read (and I can write) everything from one source. Everything I write, including personal stuff, will slip out this new portal. Like a lot of tool makers, I made this to ease my own work, but you may find it worthwhile too. One technical note: While KK Lifestream offers its own RSS feed, it doesn’t have an archive. The permalink for each item rests in the particular blog each item belongs to.

If you are happy just reading Cool Tools as it is, either at the site or in RSS, then you can continue to get the unadulterated version. If you sign up, or visit, the KK Lifestream, you get everything that I write, but not everything that appears on my blogs. For instance, the only Cool Tools reviews that will appear in the KK Lifestream will be those that I personally write. Since I don’t write that many (next week will be an exception), reading both Lifestream and Cool Tools won’t produce much overlap.

I’m still trying to figure out how to keep this ecology of blogs robust and kill any bugs in this new unfinished system , so let me know (kk at kk dot org) how it is, or is not, working.

– KK