28 July 2021


What’s in my cigar box? — Josh Glenn

What’s in my ... ? issue #112

Josh Glenn is cofounder of the commercial semiotics agency SEMIOVOX and editor of the website HILOBROW. He is coauthor of the UNBORED family activity guides, SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and other books including THE ADVENTURER’S GLOSSARY and LOST OBJECTS (both forthcoming). Recently, he signed on as founding editor of MIT Press’s RADIUM AGE series of reissued proto-sf novels from the overlooked 1900–1935 era.


I work above a liquor store, and the nice folks who work there give me empty cigar boxes whenever I pass through.

Most of my projects — UNBORED, PROJECT:OBJECT, etc. — have involved promotional stickers. Which tend to float around, getting dinged up and dusty, if you don’t protect them. I lost the cards for the 1970s-era “AC/DC: The Exciting Electric Circuit Game” long ago, but I love the bold red-and-black box, which I now use to store a selection of my promo stickers.

Nobody gives or receives business cards, any longer — who even takes f2f meetings these days? But my own business cards are mementoes — they represent various jobs and phases of my life, from working at a dotcom in the ‘90s and the Boston Globe in the ’00s, to starting my semiotics agency. Plus cards for various short-lived projects, like when I was a handyman in grad school — I specialized in repairing rain gutters and broken window sash cords.I keep ‘em safe in this vintage Lucky Strikes cigarettes container. Condition: “Used.””

My friend Peggy Nelson helped me create embroidered “merit badge” patches, for my website HILOBROW, some years back. I keep a few remnants of this fun craft project in an embossed Pac Man Ghost tin — which I believe used to contain candy. I probably swiped it from my children.

I used to collect coins when I was a kid — I don’t any longer. But I still keep an eye out for wheat pennies (1909–1956), and marvel whenever they show up in my change. How have they stayed in circulation all these years? I return some of them to the wild; others I stash in a DupliMAT typewriter ribbon tin. I love typewriter ribbon tins, and never miss a chance to snatch one up at a yard sale or thrift store. The second typewriter ribbon tin shown here contains ink cartridges for a fountain pen that I haven’t used in a few years.


27 July 2021


Karen Kay Buckley’s “Perfect Scissors”

Micro-serrated blade pulls the fabric into the scissors

The perfect set of sewing scissors are, to some degree, a matter of taste — and a matter of the job at hand. In my opinion, for long, straight cuts or gentle curves, nothing beats a rotary cutter (such as the Olfa, reviewed elsewhere on Cool Tools) but for small, fussy cutting, such as appliqué or quilting, a rotary cutter is not the best tool: Karen Kay Buckley’s “Perfect Scissors” are far superior for detailed fabric cutting.

The key is their micro-serrated blades, which bite tenaciously into the fabric and pull it into the cut rather than allowing it to slither away. Tiny, precise inside corner cuts are no problem with these, and silky fabrics won’t go slip-sliding away. The serrations also reduce fraying on the fabric. The VERY sharp points cut all the way to the tip, making fine details easier to cut. The scissors have comfortable grips, and come with a plastic sheath to protect you from those ultra-sharp tips (and protect the tips from damage). If you have precision fabric cutting to do, give these a try!

-- Barbara Dace 07/27/21

26 July 2021


StylusReach Flexible Flashlight

For light in tight places

My brother-in-law, who’s a tool salesman, gave me a StylusReach Flexible Flashlight for Christmas. It’s a natural white super bright LED light on a flexible, shielded cable. The LED has a rated life of 100,000 hours.

The light is extremely tough. My bro-in-law likes to whack the crap out of ‘em to demonstrate how durable they are. Waterproof too. Two settings on the light: blinking and steady. There’s also a blue LED version, which is easier on the eyes.

The StylusReach is pen-sized (when the shaft is folded over and clipped to the battery tube) and 14 inches long when extended. It has a pocket clip (and you thought that Fisher Space Pen made you look like a geek!).

I use mine for all sorts of hardware hacking and around-the-house stuff (like looking under the burner on our stove to try and find out why the stovetop heated up to the point where it shattered the tempered glass stovetop inset!)

Inside computers, you can actually clip it to the side of the case to direct the light where you want it. It’s also really useful for seeing behind furniture, etc. The light lets me clearly see what I’m going for before I reach and grab.

-- Gareth Branwyn 07/26/21

25 July 2021


Tiny purchases/Grief Deck/Retractable electric cords

Recomendo: issue no. 262

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Tiny purchases that improve life
Ask Metafilter asked its users: “What tiny purchases changed your life drastically?” The dozens of answers provide a wealth of useful tools and gear recommended by users. Example: “A cheap low-feature MP3 player, like they sell for $30 for exercising with. They have way longer battery life than a phone, so when you’re traveling you can have music the whole time without risking draining your phone and getting yourself stranded somewhere.” After reading this, I bought this tiny SanDisk 8GB Clip Jam MP3/FM Radio Player. — MF

Visual toolkit for grief
Grief Deck is a free visual resource for grief support. All the cards were made by artists or caregivers or someone who has lost someone. Anyone can contribute if you have something to say about processing loss. You scroll seemingly endlessly for an image card that resonates with you, when you click on it, it flips to deliver a prompt or meditation to focus on and let your feelings arise. Grief has never been something I expect to go away, but it is something I learned to coexist with. The best advice I ever received regarding grief was to schedule it — daily if you need to. For a month, I would hold in my tears until I was alone and then I would cry until I was exhausted. After a month, it became less and less, but I never stop making space for it. Here is the card I contributed to Grief Deck, inspired by my father-in-law who we lost last year. — CD

Retractable electric cords
I’m in love with retractable extension cords that work like the retractable cord in a vacuum cleaner. You pull it out to use it and then yank it to slurp up the cord when done. So fast and tidy. The awkward alternative is to try to untangle long extension cords and wrestle them back again. I’ve put a retractable cord reel in my studio, one in my workshop, and one in my garage that extends to the driveway and street — anywhere I find myself needing power temporarily. You can mount it on a ceiling or wall. I like this Dewenwils reel, which is 30 foot long, and inexpensive ($44). I also use a longer and heavy duty (12 gauge) for my shop offered by Amazon’s own generic brand. — KK

Earbud extension cable
It seems like Zoom and Google Hangouts will be permanent fixtures in my life. My Bluetooth earbuds have not worked well for me. The wired earbuds I use are foolproof. It’s just that the cable is too short for comfort. KabelDirekt’s 3-foot extension cable solved the problem for me. While Zooming, I can now stretch comfortably in my chair without having to worry about the earbuds falling out. — MF

Largest database on rocks and minerals
Mindat.org is a great website to lose time if you’re an amateur rockhound. It is a nonprofit project by The Hudson Institute of Mineralogy, and the “leading authority on minerals and their localities, deposits, and mines worldwide.” There’s a lot of ways to search for and discover new rocks, including a cool color search. If you’re more of a “pro” than an amateur you can contribute your own photos and data. My husband likes to bring home rocks from river beds and hikes and I gravitate more toward crystals, but it’s one thing to admire the natural beauty and wonder of our earth’s materials and another to learn about it’s importance and use in our world. — CD

Daily art
Beeple is the artist who famously sold a digital NFT of his artwork for $69 million. While that is crazy and hard to believe, what I find more remarkable is that the art piece was a montage of 5,000 paintings he did over 5,000 days. Without fail, he created a piece of art for 5,000 consecutive days and shared it. I found this short YouTube video of Beeple talking about this daily habit, before he was rich and a celebrity, so inspirational that I began making a piece of art everyday myself. (You can see my first 60 pieces archived here, or posted on my Instagram.) — KK

-- Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder, Claudia Dawson 07/25/21

24 July 2021


Book Freak #55: How to Design Your Life

Short pieces of advice from books

Bill Burnett is a Consulting Assistant Professor at Stanford University and currently the Executive Director of the Design Program. Here is advice from his book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.

Don’t fall in love with your first idea
“Our minds are generally lazy and like to get rid of problems as quickly as possible, so they surround first ideas with a lot of positive chemicals to make us ‘fall in love’ with them. Do not fall in love with your first idea.”

To become passionate about something, get good at it
“For most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery – not before. To put it more succinctly: passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause.”

Don’t pick a fight with reality
“People fight with reality. They fight it tooth and nail, with everything they’ve got. And anytime you are arguing or fighting with reality, reality will win. You can’t outsmart it. You can’t trick it. You can’t bend it to your will. Not now. Not ever.”

Design your life
“Design doesn’t just work for creating cool stuff like computers and Ferraris; it works in creating a cool life. You can use design thinking to create a life that is meaningful, joyful, and fulfilling. It doesn’t matter who you are or were, what you do or did for a living, how young or how old you are – you can use the same thinking that created the most amazing technology, products, and spaces to design your career and your life.”

Book Freak is published by Cool Tools Lab, a small company of three people. We run the Cool Tools website, a podcast, a video review YouTube channel, and a couple other newsletters, including Gareth’s Tips, Tools, and Shop TalesWhat’s in my bag? and Recomendo. I hope you’ll check them out. You can support our work by becoming a patron via Patreon.

-- Mark Frauenfelder 07/24/21

23 July 2021


Joe Szuecs, Founder of the Maker Music Festival

Cool Tools Show 288: Joe Szuecs

Our guest this week is Joe Szuecs, the founder of the Maker Music Festival. Joe is also the president of Chimera Arts maker space located in Sonoma County, California. Joe is a software developer, artist, musician and avid home cook. You can find Maker Music Festival on YouTube, and on Instagram @makermusicfest and on Twitter @makerfestival.

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Show on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

Show notes:

Sonic Pi: code-based music creation and performance tool
One of the things I do is I’m a musician, I’m a guitar player, and I gig here and there locally and make music. Sonic Pi combines two things — me as a software developer and me as a musician. So now I’ve got this Ruby-based coding language that I can make music with. I wrote my own drum machine where I can enter in patterns. And so now I can use that as a backing. And then as a programmer, flowcharty kind of guy, there are these rules for chord progressions in music, and so I was able to sit there and write new kinds of songs. I wrote this application in Sonic Pi to just generate chord progressions, and then it would just play them. And I would just listen to them, and then I would say, “Ah, I kind of liked that passage.” So now you can pause it and then see what it did. And then I could take that and go from there as to actually compose music that I would record later. Also, it deals with samples really well. The Smithsonian released a whole library of samples. And it’s just got all this crazy old musics all from movies and things like that. And I used that to kind of play around with layering these sort of sample pieces over these chord progressions and so it’s a lot of fun to play with to create these sort of things.

Large format Chinese Laser Cutters on AliExpress — 100 watt, Ruida control, LightBurn software
In most Makerspaces laser cutters are kind of expensive, especially for high powered ones. But we bought this Chinese one a while back, and it’s big, it’s three foot by four feet. It does not have a model number or name. It’s AliExpress. You got to always do some research to find them. But the ones you want are ones that have a Ruida controller because then it’ll run LightBurn, which is the controlling software. We’ve run ours for at least five years. And we’ve got members who don’t know what they’re doing running them, and so it’s held up today. I think it’s just that they’re worth a serious look at if you’re a Makerspace or even for a personal user. And the ones that we have are 100 watt models, so they’re quite large for three foot by four foot cut area, but they’re also very fast. There are also smaller Chinese cutters called “K40″s. I think they’re like 500 bucks. So if you want to get into laser cutting and play around, go for it. Just do your research. There’s plenty of YouTube stuff. They change all the time, so that’s why it’s hard to say, “Buy this model.”

Inkscape is what I use to generate patterns. It’s free, which is nice, so you get into it and play around with it. It’s an Illustrator equivalent. The nice thing about it, one, it’s free. Secondly, I prefer how the interface works. I find it much easier to use, and it’s fast, much faster. It doesn’t have all the overhead of Illustrator. So I think if what you’re doing is mostly laser cutting and things like that, it’s a great way to go. And then for instance, with the Maker Music Festival, that whole interface, those are SVG files, all those buildings, right? Because SVG files can be manipulated by JavaScript. So basically, I was doing a number of projects before this where I was using JPEGs and overlaying things. And oh God, you have to tell them where to go and everything. Whereas with the SVG files, they’re Java scriptable. You can tell it that if they get clicked, something’s going to happen here, you can manipulate them and change them. So I used Inkscape to design that whole interface and do all of that.

Old Gibson “player” guitars
Years ago, I bought an old Gibson 1934 L4. It’s old, and so it’s pretty cool. The thing was that with mine, it was that the the sun had faded out the serial number. And so it knocked its value down quite a bit because now they can’t trace it. The other thing about the ’34 L4 was that it’s a working man’s guitar, nothing fancy, not very collectible. But it’s a great guitar, the finish, all checked and obvious sweat stained and the whole sort thing. They sound great. Get one that’s kind of beat up. Not cracked, make sure it’s in decent shape, but very playable. And then you can get it for about a $1000. And it’s just a cool looking guitar. It sounds great, and you don’t worry about it because it’s all beat up already.

About Maker Music Festival:
Recently, we had like 20 hours of live streaming, as well as a big push to get the site up with almost 300 projects on there. And that’s still there, and that’s still living. And so now we’re working on keeping that going. So monthly live events, as well as working on collaboration, collaborative things. I had a meeting this morning with Cynthia from Jack Trip, which is a live synchronization tool out of Stanford’s CCRMA. And so anyway, so we’re looking at collaboration and things like that. So there’s a bunch of stuff to do with the Makers Music Festival.



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Adventure Medical Kits

Full medical station in a pouch

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Pogo Connect

Best iPad stylus

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SunRun PPA

Zero Down Solar Panels

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Griphoist (Tirfor) Hand Winch

Better than a come-along or winch

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Cool Tools Show 288: Joe Szuecs

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28 July 2021


Cool Tools is a web site which recommends the best/cheapest tools available. Tools are defined broadly as anything that can be useful. This includes hand tools, machines, books, software, gadgets, websites, maps, and even ideas. All reviews are positive raves written by real users. We don’t bother with negative reviews because our intent is to only offer the best.

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13632766_602152159944472_101382480_oKevin Kelly started Cool Tools in 2000 as an email list, then as a blog since 2003. He edited all reviews through 2006. He writes the occasional review, oversees the design and editorial direction of this site, and made a book version of Cool Tools. If you have a question about the website in general his email is kk {at} kk.org.

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13898183_602421513250870_1391167760_oClaudia Dawson runs the Cool Tool website, posting items daily, maintaining software, measuring analytics, managing ads, and in general keeping the site alive. If you have a concern about the operation or status of this site contact her email is claudia {at} cool-tools.org.