YourFonts

With YourFonts you can make a TrueType font from your own handwriting for free. The process is simple, quick and basically idiot-proof. Print out a template from the site, write in your letters, scan, upload and — voila — there you have it. If you’re a real fonthead, you might want more detail and control over the fonts you create. I remember even years ago seeing an ad in MacWorld for a “make your own handwriting font.” The template that software had was a lot more sophisticated, since it asked for examples of different letter combination as well as individual letters. The YourFonts template basically replicates the characters on a standard keyboard, with an optional extension to characters with accents/umlauts etc.

By far, this is the best, quickest, easiest and cheapest option I’ve found thus far. YourFonts offers proper font creation software that can be purchased at what seems to be fairly reasonable prices. But the free font creation tool is heaps of fun and available for use without any form of obligation. I’ve already gone back and improved my first efforts, opting to fiddle with character heights and positioning in GIMP a lot (see below). I’m now keen to create a couple more fonts for my fledgling web site. This is quite possibly the start of an addiction.

-- Craig Shaw  

Sample Excerpts:

Here’s my somewhat egotistically-titled font “Shaw Hand” in various iterations. Being a bit anally retentive, I wanted to improve the uniformity a bit and improve the look of some characters. Because there’s no direct control over kerning, etc. the width of the character is important — nothing “tucks in” under/over adjacent characters. Note my somewhat idiosyncratic “g”, and how my initial “e,” “w” and “h” were a bit wide. I also found matching the template guides for height was important. Since it can be hard to achieve this on paper (despite practice!) I did the best I could and then — since the template is scanned as a .jpg, — I actually ended up using GIMP to do some editing, such as stretching individual characters vertically or horizontally, or making minor improvements to their shape. Below are just improvements on the one style. I haven’t even started to create a new style yet. :-)

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Cabela’s

Cabela’s started out as a premier mail-order source for hunting gear. It is still known for that, but its coverage has expanded far beyond hunting, far beyond camping, to include anything remotely connected to the outdoors. Its pages overflow with boating tools, trailer hitches, smokers, meat processing equipment, kayaking stuff, binoculars, remote cameras, tent gadgets, tons of clothes, pet gear, RV supplies, and so on. The range of tools sold is staggering. It is a catalog of outdoor aspirations. In general the stuff they sell works as advertised, so one can use them as a pretty good guide to what’s useful.

Candid customer reviews of purchased items makes shopping at the Cabela’s website almost as good as Amazon’s. But you really should get your hands on their 500-page master paper catalog. No one is as keen on web shopping as I am, but the Cabela’s master catalog is prime evidence that sometimes a big fat paper book is better. You cannot grasp the totality of what Cabela’s has to offer on its website, nor can you zip through it in browse mode as you can while flipping through its 500 crammed pages. It would take days to do the same on the web, and you’d still miss stuff.

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A big fat paper catalog can be a big environmental waste mailed out each season. Cabela’s has engineered an interesting experiment wherein they display scans of the catalog pages with embedded links to the online item. You get the browsability of the paper catalog and the convenience of web ordering. What you don’t get is speed. This method is currently too slow to be enjoyable, but it is a handy option. I still take the paper version.

-- KK  

Free from Cabela's

Sample Excerpts:
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Electric Sheep

This computer screen saver is incredibly beautiful, dynamic, amazingly hypnotic, free (!), and literally alive. You can get the full story here, but Electric Sheep is Scott Draves‘ open source, distributed computing project which creates and disseminates new user-generated and/or computer-generated fractals to everyone who’s downloaded the screen saver. I’ve been running the Mac version for about four or five years and find myself involuntarily staring at it for long periods. Over time, you’ll actually see it evolve, and get to know family trees. I sometimes recognize dynamic fractals patterns I’ve seen elsewhere in nature. I’ve seen fractals that resemble the inside of cells (my background is in biology). I’m also a scuba diver, and I’ve seen fractals that especially resemble lots of marine creatures, such as Nudibranchs and Barnacles and Sea Cucumbers and more. Plus, classic cloudscapes and NASA pics of galaxies forming as well as sliced/polished rock geological forms.

As I understand it, there are essentially three ways sheep come into existence. People can login to the website and use a GUI to create their own sheep to release into the ‘flock.’ Sheep have a finite lifetime, and users can vote on the sexiest/prettiest or least favorite sheep by pressing the up or down arrows when they appear on their screens. Sheep with favorable ratings get to ‘breed’ more. When they breed, sheep are genetically recombined to form diverse offspring, which resemble various aspects of each parent. There is also an automatic genetic algorithm that occasionally generates and lets loose new sheep with fresh DNA into the flock. Interestingly, just as in nature, when the algorithm is creating new sheep it analyzes them in various ways to make sure they aren’t deformed or utterly pointless (i.e. just as embryos in the womb of mammals are eliminated if there are genetic or developmental problems).

You can get the screen saver for any platform. I’ve installed both Mac and PC versions a few dozen times on various friends’ computers over the years and can assure you it’s adware/virus free.

– Mark Lenhart

I’d heard about Electric Sheep through the years. Was always curious, but for some reason never bothered to try it until recently. I now find myself pausing regularly to gaze at the sheep whenever I get antsy or hit a wall while working. One unexpected side-effect: my Sheep-gawking moments also serve as much-needed stretch breaks.

– Steven Leckart

 

Here are some fractals (top) and a mini "Sheepumentary" (bottom) about the project:



Free topo maps

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Topo maps have long been friends of all explorers and wanderers. Contours of the land make or break your journey, but this critical relief is not captured by the satellite images or street maps usually found on Google Earth. Togographical maps however do show relief. Topo maps typically display the gradient of the land as concentric contour lines which can be easily followed. Topo maps also label structures, buildings, railways, and other features of interest to someone trying to navigate on their own power. All continental areas of the US have been mapped in topographic detail and these crisply printed topo maps are available inexpensively from the United States Geological Survey.

But this is the age of freeconomics, so there are two ways to acquire topo maps for free.

The easiest way is to download a free nifty app for Google Earth, called the Topographical Overlay, that will add a KMZ “layer” of official US topo maps on Google Earth. Once installed you can toggle it on or off. When on, the Topo Overlay displays the standard 7.5 minute topos as one seamless map of the country. This makes it very easy to center your interest in the middle of your custom map. (You can buy a similar service on a not-cheap set of CDs from National Geographic, but you get the same thing here for free.) For browsing, this arrangement is hard to beat. You can zoom in, or out, and scroll forever. Its major drawback is printing. I have not been able to get the displayed map to print larger than one half of a standard letter page.

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Topographical Overlay layer in Google Earth.

However there is another way to print free topos. You can download, for free, a high resolution PDF file of any US topo map made. These are the same maps that the Google Earth app is using, but here they are dished out one by one in PDF format. Go to the USGS Map Locator page, and search for the quad you want. You can type in an “street” address just like in Google. Click on the appropriate miniature map and then choose which scale map of the area you want to download. The PDF files of the standard 7.5 minute topo map will be between 6 and 16 megs. You’ll need Photoshop or equivalent to crop and size them. Be prepared to use some heavy duty processing power. These are big, very detailed maps.

Once prepared, you can then print the topo map out yourself if you have a wide color printer. But since you can order the topo map itself for only $6 (plus postage) from the same government website, why not buy if you have the time?

There are four good reasons you might want to download and print your own topo maps.

1) It is instant. When you need a topo today, it’s worth the hassle of messing with files.
2) It is selective. Way too often the spot you are looking for is in the corner of 4 maps, which means you have to order all four just to center the chosen area. You can eliminate 3 extra maps by combining the parts you want into one map.
3) You can print it on Teslin map paper (see below) which holds up in field use.
4) It can be lots cheaper.

However most of us don’t have extra wide printers. You can print a series of cropped portions of a topo on regular 8.5 x 11 sheets at the official scale, but I wouldn’t want to do many by hand like that — say a long trail. (Someone should write a utility for that job; write me if you know of one.) Even a slightly wider printer which can handle a 11 x 17 size sheet (Ledger) will give you very usable results. I recently printed a river run by cutting out the relevant sections of 6 topos, then printing each sheet at standard scale on an 11 x 17 page. We got served wonderfully.

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Teslin +ink-jet map, printed on both sides. No-see-through when used horizontally.

Whatever size you print, you can drastically increase the usability of your home-printed map by upgrading to Teslin paper. National Geographic sells cut sheets of Teslin as Adventure Paper. Think tyvek, but smoother and printable. It’s available in boxes of 25, 15 or 10 sheets depending on size. You send this this untearable, nearly indestructible paper through your ordinary ink jet printer. The resulting map (see picture above) can then be dunked in the ocean, folded again and again, and it won’t break. When applied as if the paper were Glossy Photo Paper, your typical ink jet ink seems to adhere well and hold up pretty good to abuse. It can be printed on both sides, too, to further compact your maps.

-- KK  

USGS Topographical Overlay (KMZ file)

USGS Map Locator

National Geographic Adventure Paper
11 x 17 inches, 10 sheets
$25
Available from National Geographic

Or from Waterproof-Paper.com



Zamzar

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The web-based file conversion service Zamzar has saved my bacon on a number of occasions. I’m a college English professor who teaches composition, and in the Before Times, I was endlessly frustrated by students submitting their essays in every odd format imaginable (.docx, .wps, .wpf, etc.) — this despite my pleas that they be saved in the more platform/version friendly Rich Text Format. Consequently, I spent an awful lot of my time running from my office Mac to the PC lab and back to handle time-consuming conversions. Needless to say, it was a major timesink.

Zamzar changes all that by offering a robust, quick, and excellent conversion service: you upload the file you’d like it to convert, select the output format and your email, and you’re off. In the span of an hour (sometimes quicker), you’ll get an email with a unique link taking you to a page where you can download the converted file, which remains active for a day. You can also upload multiple files in a batch, which comes in handy when you’re looking at half a dozen different student file formats and would like them
all similarly converted. I even got a successful .doc conversion made from a colleague’s Publisher file (who uses that?).

I’ve used Zamzar only for about 3 months now, but usually once or twice a week, and it’s never failed me except for a .pub to .doc conversion, which had some minor layout issues (things weren’t where they were supposed to be). Although I’ve only used it primarily for word-processing documents, Zamzar also converts to and from a variety of image, audio, and video file formats ranging from the common to the exotic. You don’t even need an account to get Zamzar to convert files, although having one ensures that you’ll get a converted file faster, have more online storage, an individual file capacity of up to 1GB (as opposed to the free 100MB), and no banner ads. Because I deal primarily with smallish text files, the free service is still plenty fine with me (I get emails linking to my converted file usually within half an hour of submitting it). And I’m happy to weather the relatively unobtrusive ad assault for a free, quick, and idiot-proof way of converting files on the fly.

-- Professor Ben McCorkle  



Money for Nothing

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It’s a deceptive title — but in part that’s marketing. Seth Godin, master marketer, sums up the best way to drive traffic to your website (or store, or organization, etc.).

Three words: be useful, unique and updated.

Yep, that’s about it. If you can be useful to others (offer value), be unique (by positioning and branding, and being memorable and distinctive), keep showing up, and be current, you’ve got it made.

It’s also a good recipe for life.

This free PDF sermon is short, breezy and right on.

-- KK  

Money for Nothing
By Seth Godin
2007, 13 pages
Free
Available via Squidoo

Sample Excerpts:

No one cares if your lens is good. They care if it’s great. Irresistible. The one and only best spot online. Not in your opinion of course, but in their opinion.




Motion Mountain

This is not your father’s physics textbook. It is the self-published 1,500-page (!!), still-unfinished physics textbook written and designed by your polymath genius uncle who dwells on a mountain with the spirits of departed philosophers (whom he quotes, in German). It’s what a physics textbook would be like if a poet wrote it and made no mistakes. The book is massively visual. There is minimal math. It’s a textbook with soul.

The guiding metaphor of Motion Moutain, and thus its name, is to frame physics as varieties of motion and change. When it gets to quantum mechanics it considers this in almost Taoist terms, as the “smallest change.”

This textbook is a work of art. Unlike standard texts, it is an enthusiastically personal masterpiece, yet still has exercise problems for students to practice. It sprawls across topics you won’t find in any other physics textbook: semantics, lying, color theory, the physics of pleasure. In many ways it reminds me of Godel, Escher, Bach in its witty brilliance, stupendous range, and self-designed idiosyncrasies. Motion Moutain is an amazing portrait of the physical world as flux. It has the power to equip you with the intellectual tools to work with, and love, this flux. Studying it is an adventure in understanding.

Best of all, it is a free PDF book. A PDF means that it is hyperlinked to footnotes and intensely cross-referenced. And it is easily searchable. Every student — anywhere — can download a copy.

-- KK  

[This post was originally part of Cool Tool's Five Good eBooks. ]

Motion Mountain: An Adventure in Physics
By Christoph Schiller
2012, 1498 pages
Free
Available at Motion Mountain

Sample Excerpts:

Why do change and motion exist?
How does a rainbow form?
What is the most fantastic voyage possible?
Is ‘empty space’ really empty?
How can one levitate things?
At what distance between two points does it become
impossible to find room for a third one in between?
What does ‘quantum’ mean?
Which problems in physics are unsolved?

Astonishingly, it is actually impossible to distinguish an original picture of nature from its mirror image if it does not contain any human traces. In other words, everyday nature is somehow left-right symmetric. This observation is so common that all candidate exceptions, from the jaw movement of ruminating cows to the helical growth of plants, such as hops, or the spiral direction of snail shells, have been extensively studied. Can you name a few more? The left-right symmetry of nature appears because everyday nature is described by gravitation and, as we will see, by electromagnetism. Both interactions share an important property: substituting all coordinates in their equations by the negative of their values leaves the equations unchanged. This means that for any solution of these equations, i.e., for any naturally occurring system, a mirror image is a possibility that can also occur naturally. Everyday nature thus cannot distinguish between right and left. Indeed, there are right and left handers, people with their heart on the left and others with their heart on the right side, etc.

Do all objects on Earth fall with the same acceleration of 9.8 m/s2, assuming that air resistance can be neglected? No; every housekeeper knows that. You can check this by yourself. A broom angled at around 35 degrees hits the floor before a stone, as the sounds of impact confirm. Are you able to explain why?

Sexual Preferences in Physics
Fluctuating entities can be seen to answer an old and not-so-serious question. When we discussed the definition of nature as made of tiny balls moving in a vacuum, we described this as a typically male idea. This implies that the female part is missing. Which part would that be? From the present point of view, the female part of physics might be the quantum description of the vacuum. The unravelling of the structure of the vacuum, as an extended container of localized balls, could be seen as the female half of physics. If women had developed physics, the order of its discoveries would surely have been different. Instead of studying matter, as men did, women might have studied the vacuum first.

When do clocks exist?
In general relativity, we found out that purely gravitational clocks do not exist, because there is no unit of time that can be formed using the constants c and G. Clocks, like any measurement standard, need matter and non-gravitational interactions to work. This is the domain of quantum theory. Let us see what the situation is in this case…. In short, quantum theory shows that exact clocks do not exist in nature. Quantum theory states that any clock can only be approximate. Obviously, this result is of importance for high precision clocks. The quantum of action implies that a precise clock motor has a position indeterminacy. The clock precision is thus limited.Worse, like any quantum system, the motor has a small, but finite probability to stop or to run backwards for a while. You can check this prediction yourself. Just have a look at a clock when its battery is almost empty, or when the weight driving the pendulum has almost reached the bottom position. It will start doing funny things, like going backwards a bit or jumping back and forward.When the clock works normally, this behavior is strongly suppressed; however, it is still possible, though with low probability. This is true even for a sundial.




The Personal MBA

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I once dabbled with the idea of getting an MBA. After a life avoiding any work in a business, I wanted to start one of my own and knew zero about it. Like many folks, I thought a heavy-duty school program would cure my ignorance and inexperience. But an official MBA degree can easily cost $100,000. I figured out I would learn more spending $500 in self-education. So I devoted $200 for books and the other $300 actually starting a small mail-order business (the fee went for an ad). In two years I learned more about how business really worked than any MBA graduate I had met. No matter what they tell you, an MBA is not essential for landing or handling a good business job. The chief “skill” you’ll come away by your degree is a diploma, and a network of indebted friends in business. The latter is actually useful.

There is another option to an overpriced degree, which is the self-education path outlined above. Pursue your own Personal MBA in tandem with actual experience doing some kind of business. Josh Kaufman has put together an excellent and very hefty reading list which forms the core of his PMBA course. It is downloadable as a free PDF. The recommended readings are wide, deep, holistic, and very good. You could purchase all of these easily available books for $500, and if you combine study of them with actually trying stuff, you’ll be far ahead in the business game.

If you go this route, you need to supplement your self-education with a network of live humans engaged in business (the only part of a certified MBA you’ll miss).

Kaufman has recently updated his annotated recommended reading list. No PDF yet, but his website is chock full of the new material.

-- KK  

[This post was originally part of Cool Tool's Five Good eBooks. ]

The Personal MBA: Mastering Business Through Self-Education
By Josh Kaufman
2005, 33 pages
Free PDF
Available from ChangeThis

Josh Kaufman’s website

Sample Excerpts:

The Personal MBA is not:

A credential. If you read these books, you won’t have corporate recruiters beating down your door, and you won’t have a pretty certificate to hang on your wall when you’re done. You will, however, have an understanding of business that’s comparable to completing a traditional business school curriculum, along with the pleasures of not having to mortgage your life for that understanding. You do not need a certificate to be able to understand, use, and hold an intelligent conversation about advanced business topics. (Employers do, however, respond well to portfolios. If you build a portfolio of notes to capture what you learn through the Personal MBA, you’ll have a tangible asset to prove your hard work and dedication during the interview process.)

A stand-alone venture. You can’t learn about business solely from books (or sitting in a classroom); you have to be willing to go out and learn by doing. Whether you’re working full-time for a company or building your own business, a great deal of your knowledge will develop as a direct result of your day-to-day work experiences, which provide the necessary context for understanding what you read. Reading books is not enough; application of what you read is essential.




Tips for Conference Bloggers

There’s an emerging new media I use more and more: an online summary of a conference. Known as liveblogging, it presents a synopsis of each presentation, talk-by-talk, in nearly real time. This saves you time and money traveling to distant cities, and suffering through introductions and equipment failures. At its best, reading the liveblog can be better than attending the talk. All the chaff has been winnowed, and almost every talk captured. (Most conference attendees don’t even get to every talk.) Video recordings of conferences are becoming more popular, but a good liveblog is much quicker to scan and digest. But at its worse, a liveblog will offer little more than snarky comments about the speaker.

At the creation end, you need some skills to separate the best from the worst. Ethan Zuckerman, of Geek Corp, is one of the best conference bloggers alive. He teamed up with Bruno Giussani, another star liveblogger, to produce this free short 6-page PDF booklet on how to blog a conference with effectiveness. When you blog a conference it forces you to pay attention. My first book Out of Control began as an online blog of every talk at the first Artificial Life Conference (although no one called it blogging in 1987). The requisite focus of summarizing each talk clarified many ideas for me, and the response to the “blog” of the conference encouraged me to write a book. Other livebloggers find the same. They listen harder, and remember more.

Get good at this and you have a free pass to many high-priced conferences. Organizers are increasingly looking for first-rate livebloggers to generate press and future attendees. Or, like Ethan you can generate your own audience who follow you because your liveblogging skills.

-- KK  

[This post was originally part of Cool Tool's Five Good eBooks.]

Tips for Conference Bloggers
By Bruno Giussani and Ethan Zuckerman
2007, 6 pages
Free
Available as a PDF from here

Sample Excerpts:

It’s relatively easy to blog good and great speakers: They follow a narrative path through their talks and speak at a pace the audience can understand. It’s harder to blog inexperienced speakers(because they may be too technical, confusing, fast, etc.) and multispeaker panels (because the discussion can take many different unstructured turns). But you don’t need to transcribe the whole talk, you need to capture the gist of it. A 20-minutes talk can often be summarized in a 20-lines post.

*

Always remember that what you’re writing will be read by people who weren’t in the room, so they haven’t seen the slides, the video, or the gesture. Hence, you have to compensate for the lack of context. Don’t be afraid to create a narrative by saying “He shows a slide with data on …” or “She walks on stage carrying a big suitcase” or “He shows a YouTube video” etc. And if the speaker shows a YouTube video, or a picture, remember that you’re online: Open another browser window, go to YouTube, find that video, and link to it; or go to the speaker’s website, find that picture or another similar or related item, and link to it (or republish the picture within your post). Yes, this requires effective multitasking. It’s at the root of conference blogging.

*

Conferences usually give out a program ahead of time. Use it to prepare for blogging: Do a quick Google search for each speaker, and save (in the same text file) links to their sites, blogs, and the institutions they’re affiliated with; write a one-or-two-sentences “biography” for each; and for the speakers you’ve never heard of, try to get a general sense of who they are and what they do. To write the mini-biography, use also the speaker information distributed by the conference organizers (booklet, website, etc.). For the key speakers, save a picture on your laptop (from their websites) and pre-format it for Web use, in case you will need it. If you prepare sufficiently, you’ve got the first paragraph of each post almost written ahead of time.




Home Power

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A great resource on renewables and other off-grid techniques written by people who’ve done the work for people who are ready to do the work themselves. Last I heard (probably more than a decade ago now), there were at least 100,000 homes and buildings off the grid in the USA. Home Power is the magazine that shows them how to do it, what works and what doesn’t. For those who aren’t afraid to pick up a wrench and get dirty, good stuff.

– George Mokray

I was the publisher of PV Network News and then Solar Electricity Today from ’84 to ’97, two publications for and about early adaptors, back to the land folks and anyone interested in using renewable energy (RE). I published the last SET in ’97, trading it to Richard Perez who has since created the best American magazine on home energy. Home Power has how-to articles, product reviews and a lot of info on and dealers and manufacturers. It has stories on RE and the Electrical Code, electric cars, wind generators, PV, Hydro and pieces written by home owners telling their stories and showing installations and wiring diagrams — from basic basic to utility interconnect. In ’84 we lived in a place with a 12-volt, 200-watt wind generator and 3 or 4 33-watt PV panels. We used surplus phone company batteries to store our electricity, and we had lighting, radio, phone and TV for the rest of our loads. We hardly knew a thing when we started, it was so new. After 27 years of collecting and installing modules, I now have a 500-watt PV system that runs most of the lighting, all entertainment, computers, washer and dryer (dryer is gas) in our 2000sq. ft. home. Our system cost under $8k and I’m guessing we collect about 80kw month. If you’re looking for info on remote homes or utility connected and want to get started or enhance the system you may already have, check out Homepower.com or their paper magazine. You can get all their issues on DVD for $95 — 20 years, 120 issues, 2716 articles. HP‘s last issue is 128 pages and is offered as a free PDF. You can also look up dealers and installers in your area on their site.

-- Paul Wilkins  

[Home Power no longer sells DVDs of its back issues, but all of their 3-year subscription options (print, digital, or both) include download access to the back issue archive. Although they no longer offer a sample PDF issue, several recent articles are available for free on the website. --cc]

1 yr. subscription (six issues)
$15, print
$10, digital
$20, print and digital
Available from Home Power