Cool Tools

YNAB/Best bicycle bag/Self-care checklist

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A home budget that makes sense to me
For years I’ve tried to keep a home budget, but it never seems to work. I end up spending more than I budgeted in some categories, less in others, and I don’t keep good track of what I’ve spent. When our Cool Tools podcast guest Lillian Karabaic recommended something called You Need a Budget (YNAB) a couple of months ago, I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did. YNAB’s websites and mobile apps are excellent, as are the podcasts, videos, blog posts, and mailing lists they produce. It took me a while to wrap my head around the YNAB method, but now that I get it, I’m a true believer. For the first time in my adult life, I feel in control of my finances. — MF

Best bicycle tour bags
The best way to tour somewhere, IMHO, is via bicycle. E-bikes make that even easier these days. For overnight touring, you’ll need some bags (panniers). The blue-ribbon panniers are classic Ortlieb dry bags. Each is a roomy, rubberized single bag (no dividers or pockets) that seals off at the top to provide an absolutely waterproof container. Not cheap, but because of their simplicity they will last a lifetime. After 2,000 miles of use, I am very attached to mine, in bright yellow. — KK

Self-care checklist
It can be very hard to check in with yourself when you have anxiety or having a bad day. This is a very simple checklist for self-care that I found floating around Reddit. — CD

Mindful quotes
Five quotes that I’m minding right now — KK:
”The only interesting ideas are heresies” — Susan Sontag
“Technology is the reason we get old enough to complain about technology.” — Gary Kasparov
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” — Dwight Eisenhower
“If my work is accepted, I must move on to the point where it is not.” — John Cage
“Remember, you can’t be stuck in traffic; you are the traffic.” — Kevin Slavin

Ergonomic Wireless Mouse
My Magic Mouse was giving me claw hand from the way I had to grip it and I needed to a find an alternative mouse, so I immediately googled Wirecutter’s tested picks and bought their upgrade pick of the Logitech MX Master Mouse ($70). Full disclosure: I thought I had purchased this from a list of the best vertical mouses. Even after it arrived and I began using it, I still mistakenly thought I was using a vertical mouse and that I had quickly overcome the steep learning curve that everyone talks about. By the time I realized that it was not a vertical mouse — just a very good ergonomic one — my claw hand was gone and I was happy with it, so I just kept it! My favorite thing about this mouse is I was able to customize the buttons and scroll wheels to do everything my Magic Mouse used to do. — CD

Cool drink for a hot summer
It’s been hot for the last couple of months here in Los Angeles and my family is guzzling the iced hibiscus flower tea I’ve been making. We go through a half gallon a day, and each glass costs about a penny. I make it with this one pound bag of Feel Good organic dried hibiscus flowers I bought for $15. I make it by putting two tablespoons of flowers into a half-gallon mason jar and fill it with boiling water. When it is cool enough I put the jar in the refrigerator. The ruby red liquid is pleasingly tart and satisfying. — MF

Cool Tools

The Listener/Best free stock photos/1619 Project

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Best podcast episodes
The Listener is a meta-podcast. Each episode of the Listener presents great individual podcast episodes selected from all the other podcasts out there. I listen to it to hear the best podcast episodes on the internet as curated by the same folks who do the Browser; the best articles on the internet. No need to subscribe to hundreds of podcast channels. You’ll get the best full shows with original intros and ads, but you only subscribe to one uber podcast, The Listener. The variety and quality are awesome. — KK

Best free stock photos
Using an image or photo on a website or social media without permission of the copyright holder could turn out to be an expensive mistake. This YouTube video covers best practices for using other people’s images. The best part of the video is the list of five excellent free stock websites. Many of the images on these websites are in the public domain, which means you can use them without even crediting the creator. Here are the sites: https://unsplash.comhttps://pexels.comhttps://pixabay.com — MF

Changing historical perspective
Every American should read at least the introductory essay in the NYT’s 1619 Project, which documents the central role that slavery had in America’s rise. Entitled “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” it is a strong, tight argument that inverted my own ideas. The whole 1619 package is a seminal work. — KK

You 2.0: Deep Work
This podcast episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain with Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World,” reminded me how important it is to protect your brain from distractions and to create flows of deeply focused work. I find that on days when I schedule 4-5 hours of uninterrupted work, I accomplish a lot more within a short time span, and can use the rest of the time to respond to emails and get ahead of the week’s tasks. To combat interruptions, I find using a Pomodoro timer, and turning off email notifications in 30 minute batches works for me. I used to feel guilty for scheduling out every hour of my work day, like a robot, but ultimately scheduling in both deep work and time for distractions allows me to feel “finished” at the end of the workday, and to quickly unwind right when 5 o'clock hits. Cal Newport suggests having a shut-down phrase for when you’ve completed your schedule, something he was previously embarrassed of, but now embraces, like “Schedule shut-down complete.” I am totally stealing this and adding it to my workflow. — CD

Double-sided tape for your clothes
If I’m wearing a low-cut dress or a finicky blouse, this little tin of double-sided apparel tape (Hollywood Fashion Secrets Fashion Tape Tin, $8) always saves the day. I make sure I pack this in my luggage when I travel and in my purse if I dress up or go to weddings. — CD

Fast water kettle
In last week’s Recomendo I recommended the Bodum Brazil French Press Coffee Maker. To heat the water, I’m using a Cosori Electric Kettle ($30). It’s made from borosilicate glass and has a stainless steel bottom. No plastic touches the water. A half liter of room-temperature water starts to simmer in a minute, and comes to a full boil in under two minutes. It shuts off automatically. — MF

Cool Tools

Seek/Crisis Text Line/Travel Packing List

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Identify nature app
There is utility and pleasure in being able to identify wild creatures and plants. But it’s a steep learning curve. The fastest way I found to learn is via the iOS app Seek, which will identify flowers, plants, fungi, animals, bugs instantly. It’s kind of magical. You point your phone at the specimen and it tells you the species about 95% of the time (in North America). The other 5% it can often identify the family. Someone called it Shazam for nature. The app is patient; you can keep asking it to ID the same thing you asked about before and it will will answer again with no judgement. Seek is free; it was developed by folks who did iNaturalist, an app that uses crowdsourcing to identify species, but Seek uses machine learning to render the ID instantly. I’ve been impressed by how well this magic works. Kids and teachers love it. It gives them a superpower to name everything around them.  — KK

Free confidential crisis line
If you’re in the United States and need someone to talk to you can text 741741 any hour of the day and be connected with a crisis counselor (For Canada text 686868, and for UK text 85258). My sister-in-law volunteers for the Crisis Text Line, and she said counselors go through continuous training and are always supervised by mental health professionals. I tested it out to make sure it works and the first text was automated, but I was connected with a live person in less than 2 minutes. I hope I don’t need it, but I’m relieved to know that it’s there. For more info check out their website: — CD

My travel packing list
Here’s the latest version of my travel packing list. It’s a PDF that can be edited in Adobe Illustrator (because I don’t expect anyone to pack the same things I do). As you can see, my list is broken down into sublists of different bags: charger bag, meds bag, tool bag, etc. I keep the stuff in these excellent Japanese mesh zipper bags . Now I don’t forget important things any more like I used to. I recommend that you make a similar packing list for yourself. — MF

Easiest way to make coffee
I’ve tried a great many different coffee makers, from a stovetop espresso machine to the Aeropress. But when I visited my parents last weekend and used their 12 oz Bodum Brazil French Press Coffee and Tea Maker ($15), I decided it was my favorite because it was so easy to use and clean, and it makes delicious coffee. I bought one for myself, and now everyone else in the family is using it to make coffee (and tea). — MF

Cheaper than insurance
Sometimes you can purchase a prescription drug yourself for less money than paying your insurance co-pay. And when you buy, drug prices vary wildly between retailers. Go to GoodRx website to find the cheapest source for a drug, including online pharmacies. They also supply coupons at steeply discounted prices, up to 80% off (their biz model).  It’s free, no account or personal info required. — KK

Easiest way to make a transparent png
I have Photoshop and I’ve taught myself multiple times how to make a transparent png, but then in a pinch I always forget. So now I just go to this website (Online PNG tools) to quickly convert images into transparent pngs. It’s so simple and fast and I don’t have to use any brain power. — CD

The Technium

Recent Readings, 12

An emerging alternative theory for chronic diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes (among others) is that the underlying cause is bacterial. If true, this is huge. Link.

Great TED talk on the 7 principles of building a livable city by Peter Calthorpe. Based on his experience doing urban planning in California and China. Link.

The superiority of knobs. The US navy is reverting back to physical throttles after sailors reject touch screen controls because they were too complex. Link.
Further steps toward a virtual movie studio. One step is a combined real and virtual model. Short video clip.

By trying to model oceans in detail, astronomers hope to simulate possible Earth-like planets capable of detectable life, and are concluding that oceans play a huge role in creating diverse life on Earth. It may be that other planets, with other oceans, may yield even life more diverse than on this planet. Link.

How to get really good -- world class -- at something. Don't just practice the flow. Try to fail in practice. More tips here.

In biology the Red Queen hypothesis is well known. I had not heard of the Black Queen hypothesis: organisms shed genes for functions adjacent organisms provide. Link.

Ghost-kitchens are virtual restaurants that are visible only as an app on a phone. The kitchen is not opened to the public, often hard to find, but serves food delivered via online sales. Uber Eats, Grubhub and other apps cater niche food prepared by hidden kitchens.

Cool Tools

Bahubali/Standard Ebooks/STORi drawer organizers

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Epic Bollywood spectacle
If you have never seen a Bollywood movie, the action epic Bahubali is a great one to start. The plot revolves around a mythical demigod, Bahubali, who must reclaim his throne. This 2-movie 5-hour extravaganza is part Lord of the Rings saga, part kung-fu spectacle, part crazy soap opera, part Saturday morning cartoon, part LSD trip, and unlike anything you’ve seen. It is ridiculously corny, absurdly fictional, un-ironically campy, and immensely cinematic. It’s a lot of fun, all 5 hours of it. It streams on Netflix in 4 different languages. (The films are technically Tollywood, filmed in Telugu language, not Hindi.) The first movie, Bahubali: The Beginning has an English dub audio version, while the second movie, Bahubali: The Conclusion, has an English subtitle version. These films are the highest grossing films in India. Once seen, they cannot be unseen. — KK

Lovingly produced ebooks
Standard Ebooks is a labor of love. They take public domain texts (from Robert E. Howard to Bertrand Russell), scour them for typographical errors, add great cover art, and format them for Kindle and other ereaders. The online catalog is a pleasure to browse, with a synopsis for each book. Join the mailing list or subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on new books added to the catalog. — MF

Organize your deep drawers
I bought multiple sets of these STORi Clear Plastic Drawer Organizers to organize my makeup drawer. They come in different sizes and and can be arranged in multiple configurations to fit any drawer. They are completely transparent so even though they are stacked on top of each other, I know where everything is. There is no wasted space. — CD

Favorite water bottle
I bought the 32-ounce Takeya stainless steel water bottle last month to bring on hot summer day hiking, and it’s now my favorite. The vacuum insulation keeps the water cool for hours. It has a comfortable carrying handle, a drinking spout, and a wide-mouth lid for cleaning/drying. — MF

Listen to intimate couple’s therapy sessions
My favorite podcast is “Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel.” I always find myself choked up with emotion while listening to these anonymous couples therapy sessions. Esther Perel is so professional and progressive and such a master at guiding couples toward the light. It’s both voyeuristic and enlightening. Season 1 and 2 are free to listen to in your podcast app, but Season 3 “The Arc of Love” was just released as an Audible exclusive. — CD

Good veggie burger
The plant-based vegetarian Impossible Whopper at Burger King is pretty good for fast-food. It tastes comparable to a beef Whopper, according to my memory. (I last ate mammals 15 years ago.) Now available in most BK outlets in the US, Impossible burgers can also be found at other burger joints like White Castle. — KK

Cool Tools

What's in my bag? — Dennis Nishi

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Dennis Nishi is an Emmy-winning multimedia producer that currently works for public television and radio. He’s also a contributing writer to the Wall Street Journal and an editorial illustrator that has been published in The New Republic, the Washington Post and various other newspapers and magazines. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @dennisnishi.


Home Depot Husky Small Parts Organizer
Hiding a lav mic underneath clothing can be tricky because clothing rubbing on the mic or cable can create noise. And different fabrics create more noise than others as does static and chest hair. I put all of my tools into a generic Home Depot parts box. It’s their in-house Husky brand with customizable compartments. The box works great for storing many different kinds of stickies used to adhere mics. I also keep fur to reduce wind noise, toupee tape and hypoallergenic medical tape if I need to attach the mic to skin. The “bullet” in the middle is to weight the cable when the lav is put down the front of shirts.

Fiskars Travel Folding Scissors ($6)
The foldable Fiskars kept in the parts box are used to cut customizable moleskin strips to create “rigs” that are used to conceal mics.

Set Shop Joe’s Sticky Stuff ($20)
The metal tin contains Joe’s Sticky Stuff which is field recording voodoo. This double-sided adhesive is a cross between tape and a glue that never hardens. It’s extremely sticky but doesn’t leave residue. And it’s very malleable so can be formed into whatever shape you need. It really does arrest the movement of clothing layers around a mic head and dampens rubbing noise. You can even wrap it around a lav mic head to create a simple under clothing rig.

Ape Case Large Trifold Wallet ($9)
The lav mic case is actually an Ape Case brand camera filter wallet. The yellow interior makes it easy to find what mic I need for whatever situation and the case is well padded for protection.

About the bag
I carry all of these items in a Think Tank small camera bag ($50). This is a company founded by editorial photographers so everything is designed for field use by professional photographers. It has a lot of compartments that make it easy to store and organize everything and it has belt loops so it can be worn like a fanny pack.

Cool Tools

What's in my bag? — Glenn Fleishman

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Glenn Fleishman is a tech journalist and print historian who writes breaking news from the 19th and 21st centuries. His most recent project is the Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule, an edition of 100 small museums packed with genuine type and printing artifacts. You can find him on Twitter @GlennF.

GorillaPod ($20 and up)
I still use an original GorillaPod, even though many newer models exist, because the one I bought forever ago still has legs—literally and figuratively! With the legs comprising mostly pivot joints that can hold a fair amount of weight, the GorillaPod holds both my iPhone (with Glif adapter) or mirrorless camera and keeps it in the right position. That includes wrapping itself around a post or tree limb, when the need arises. I’m almost never in a position to carry a full-sized tripod, but want a tripod’s advantages.

Sony Noise-Cancelling Headphones ($30)
I know you can spend a fortune on noise-canceling headphones, but I wanted something compact and which folds into itself, but is cheap enough I won’t feel bad if they get damaged after jamming them into my bag and jostling them around. This Sony pair isn’t full-ear, but it meets all my needs and has lasted a whopping two years so far. Powered by a single AAA—a rechargeable lasts for more hours than I’ve managed to track—it dims airplane and café noise well enough to sleep or work.

ZMI 10,000mAh USB battery pack ($22)
This is my favorite USB battery pack for recharging a phone. It’s by far the best combination of size, weight, form, design, and recharge speed. It can fully recharge my iPhone 8 Plus a couple times or more from empty, and it charges quickly. I can never quite believe it holds the juice it does. It helps at the end of a long day when the phone’s power lags or when flying on planes without power jacks.

Studio Neat Glif ($28 by itself; $55 with grip and strap)
The Glif was the first iPhone tripod adapter, and the folks at Studio Neat took it to a new level with the revision, which uses a cleverly designed spring lock to work with any model smartphone. With three tripod screws, I can mount it any orientation that I need. It’s a great help to take stable iPhone shots while traveling or shoot a long video, and I can lift it up over my head with the handle to take shots or video above a crowd.

About the bag
It’s a Timbuk2. I don’t travel light and it’s one of their bigger messenger bags. I customized it with three shades blue and maybe paid $100 for it … a decade ago? You can barely tell that it’s been used, and it still meets my around-town and long-haul flying needs.

The Technium

Recent Readings, 11

Walking is a superpower. When you walk you increase many cognitive functions. I know that is true for me. A scientist offers some evidence in a new book In Praise of Walking (I have not read). Article about the book here.

A job for humans: teaching the AIs to see. It's now a big business. See this article on the startup, Scale. 

Using virtual reality to swap bodies and give your self advice. Weird, but early experiments suggest it works. Link.

Forgetting may not be a malfunction of memory, but a key component of memory. In other words you may not be able to remember or deal with the future unless you forget. Recent science. Link.

"Why Humans Will Never Colonize Mars" is a very strong argument, one that I agree with. Link.

A well-argued proposal for a new science of progress and setting up a new discipline of Progress Studies. I think this would be a highly productive investment for society. Link.

Are you up to speed? DYK "China has more than 425 million live-streamers." Many earn money live-streaming. Some use face filters to make them look more beautiful. Except when they break. Story link: 

Insightful article about the business models of online/video games. Says "it turns out the most effective way to generate billions of dollars is to not require a player spend a single one." Link.

This album of tiny video experiments is sweet, lovely, brilliant, useless and cool -- in other words, art. Link.

Cool Tools

Michelle Hlubinka, Former Education Director at Maker Media

Our guest this week is Michelle Hlubinka. Michelle has made a career of promoting playful learning through people-centered uses of technology in schools, museums, and neighborhoods. She spent most of the past 12 years at the forefront of Maker Media’s efforts in education, establishing key kid-focused programs—Young Makers, School Makerspaces and School Maker Faires—and running Maker Camp. In short, she is a maker of makers, and also a maker herself.

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Show on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

Show notes:

Bibo Magic Top with Slithering Snakes ($8)
We all love magnets in my family. They’re just these invisible powers that enchant any kid, and my kids will just stay wrapped with this stuff for hours. My kids have been playing with Buckyballs for years, and they’re still a few years under the recommended age of 14+. We buy all kinds of magnetic playthings when we come across them. And this was something that I didn't even know what it was until I walked into the store Joie de Vivre in Cambridge, Mass and they said, "Have you seen this?” I love this sweet spinning top and pair of metal snakes. What’s cool about it is that it uses magnetism mechanically, translating the rotational motion of the bottom tip of the top into the wiggly, linear motion of the snakes. You spin the top and feed the little snakes in and zip, the wavy edge of the snakes tuck into the tip and the rotating top tip pulls the snakes forward. There are two snakes. You have to try to get both of them to kind of slide around it at the same time. It's one of those classic metal toys, and it was a great little souvenir to bring home to my kids.

Toysmith Euler's Disk ($35)
This is a toy based on a physical phenomenon that you can also see in a spinning coin. The specifics of the Euler’s Disk were worked out by an aeronautical engineer named Joseph Bendik working with some colleagues, not by Euler, but I gather it’s named after Euler because he studied similar physics a couple of centuries ago. You spin it and it spins and spins and then at the end it does something truly unexpected — it levitates for a split second before it zaps down. It’s best experienced in person. They tried to make it into a party toy by adding all these holographic magnets that you could stick to the top. So you can dim the lights and shine a light and have things reflect on the ceiling.

Micro:bit comes from a tradition that we call programmable bits where you've got a a programming environment where you can communicate with this microprocessor to tell it what you want it to do. And they really souped up this particular programming board. The micro:bit has a five by five LED display and it's got a couple of buttons and several output ports and you can connect to it with USB and radio and Bluetooth and you can connect servos and lights and speakers, just about anything that you pump power through and it'll produce an effect. So it's really versatile and the barriers to entry are low. It has what my mentor Mitchel Resnick describes as important aspects for any “lifelong kindergarten” tool: low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls. It’s also super cheap, like $15, and a little more if you buy a kit with things to plug into it. Best of all, it’s a quick onramp to get something done with it. The BBC did a bang-up job of putting together materials to support its use.

Booby Trap Classic Wood Game
This is a game that I found at Community Thrift, which is this great resource in the Mission (SF). And I would routinely go in there and find all these beautiful vintage games and this was one of them. It was made by Parker Brothers. It's just gorgeous. I would put this around 1950, 1960. The rules of the Booby Trap are truly mechanical in that they are all physical and it's as much a competition against your opponent as it is against the laws of nature itself. In this way it's not unlike Jenga, but in Booby Trap, you use your skills in observation and prediction to decide which piece to remove next without letting a spring jostle the whole setup.There are three colors of playing pieces, shaped like disks with little knobs on top you can grab. The three colors are different sizes and point values, and your goal on each move is to remove just one of these disks without the entire thing collapsing on itself, rearranging into a new structure with a different set of force vectors pushing this way and that way against the spring. It's such a simple game that you can learn how to play it in well under a minute, and yet I find it very satisfying, with a little bit of that tension of the notorious game Perfection, and as I mentioned Jenga, but not as cataclysmic and chaotic nor as anxiety-producing.

Also mentioned:

Diffraction grating sheet
The diffraction grating sheet is this thin piece of plastic that's been etched to create prism behavior. So usually people use this inside of a spectrograph to analyze light. I was trying to create something like my Rainbow Center. I have this Kikkerland Rainbow Spinner on my window with a crystal at the bottom and a solar panel at the top where it would activate the gears and I was trying to make a cheap toy version of this for a science kit that I was designing. And so we got this sample and I just happened to put it onto my window because I wanted to see if I can see something interesting through it. Then, on one of my work from home days, all of a sudden I noticed this brilliant gorgeous rainbow across the top of my ceiling and anyone who knows me well knows that I love rainbows and it drives me crazy that we live in drought stricken California where the rain does not happen enough for my rainbow needs and ever since we discovered that, we've left it on our window and we'll move it around a little during for different seasons to make sure we get enough light on it. This casts a rainbow or a spectrum about 10 feet long and a foot wide on our ceiling every afternoon that's sunny enough.

Cool Tools

What's in my bag? — Lenore Edman

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Lenore Edman is a co-founder of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories and likes to play at the intersections of food, electronics, papercraft, engineering and art. You can find her at @1lenore and Evil Mad Scientist at @emsl on Twitter.

Maldon Sea Salt Flakes Pinch Tin ($10/3pk)
Flake salt gives more flavor because of the huge surface area, and it has a pleasant crunch as well. It’s great on anything you would sprinkle salt on like tomatoes, cucumbers, home fries and more. I use this when I’m cooking in someone else’s kitchen, at work, or when I’m picnicking. I refill it from the larger salt cellar we keep at home.

USB Flash Drive
I’ve had this Keroppi flash drive in my bag for nearly forever. You never know when you’re going to need to move a file from one computer to another. This one hasn’t gotten lost because it’s distinctive.

Etymotic High Fidelity Earplugs ($9)
These come in a package that doesn’t take up much space or get crushed in my bag. I use them for concerts or events and they’re always on hand for when there are unexpectedly loud things happening.

UV keychain flashlight ($9/pk)
I have this on my keychain because there are so many interesting things that fluoresce under UV. Rocks, creatures, inks, paints, chemicals, and even my hair dye.

About the bag
My bag is from Modcloth and has just enough useful pockets (3 inside and 1 outer pocket) and plenty of room in the main compartment for laptop and more. The available prints change regularly, and many of them are great.

The Technium

Recent Readings, 10

So-called Influencers don't influence. According a 2007 paper by Duncan Watts, “large scale changes in public opinion are not driven by highly influential people who influence everyone else, but rather by easily influenced people, influencing other easily influenced people.” Link.

This is super great! A chat bot wastes the time of a scam telemarketer. I want one of these. Link.

In-depth exploration of the real dilemma in video game architecture between "free to act" and "guided story." A super fan of Red Dead Redemption goes deep with entertaining analysis in long YouTube episode. Link.

Extensible games is a neat new concept. When you gain levels, powers, tokens, characters in one game, you can transfer them, securely and honestly, to other games via a blockchain technology. Link.

By 2025 the next car you buy will probably be an electric car manufactured in China. Link. /

I recommend this deep dive into the precarious state of grocery chains in the US, and why their future is moving away from transactions (owned by Amazon) and into the realm of experiences. This move is not just about grocery stores. It applies to all product and industrial businesses. Link.

New Coke didn't fail because it tasted bad. It failed because it was new and its brand was nostalgic and the cranks took over. Great writing about the true story.  Link.

The science of video gaming, and an appreciation. Excerpt: "I might go further and say traveling in imaginary spaces rivals the experiences of traveling in real ones, like Venice and Rome, Lima and Machu Picchu, as I have in my life. Both the imaginary and real are emotionally moving and immersive." Link.

Cool Tools

Picking a Precision Steel Rule

Tools (Recommended):
Starrett C604RE-6 6" Rigid, US Units (4R - 1/64″, 1/32″, 1/16″, 1/8″)
Starrett C636EM-6 6" Rigid, US/Metric (36 - 1/32″, 0.5mm, 1/64″, 1mm)
General Tools 676 6" Rigid, US Units (4R - 1/64″, 1/32″, 1/16″, 1/8″)
General Tools CF667ME 6" Rigid, US/Metric (31 - 1/32″, 1/64″, 0.5mm, 1mm)

Related tools mentioned:
PEC Tools 402-006 6" Rigid, US Units (4R - 1/64″, 1/32″, 1/16″, 1/8″)
Starrett C304SRE-6 6" Semi-Flexible, US Units (4R - 1/64″, 1/32″, 1/16″, 1/8″)
Starrett C304R-6 6" Full Flexible, US Units (4R - 1/64″, 1/32″, 1/16″, 1/8″)
General Tools 616 6" Flexible, US Units (4R - 1/64″, 1/32″, 1/16″, 1/8″)
PEC 262-006EZ 6" Rigid, Black Chrome, US/Metric (31 - 1/32″, 1/64″, 0.5mm, 1mm)
PEC 262-006TN Tools 6" Rigid, TiN, US/Metric (31 - 1/32″, 1/64″, 0.5mm, 1mm)


Cool Tools

Power Cord Splitter

What's so cool about a power cord splitter? Sure, it turns one plug into two, but so what? The genius of this short adaptor ($6) is that you can pack it in your travel bag. So when you come upon the lone outlet in an airport, cafe, or hotel lobby that is already occupied, all you need to do is to politely ask to insert this spitter. Now you can add your line without disrupting theirs. And of course, at times you may use its doubling yourself.

Cool Tools

Sci-Hub/Learning Synths/Strikethrough stress note

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Free academic papers
For the past 8 years Sci-Hub has been the Napster of academic papers. It’s a pirate site that serves up scholarly journal articles usually stashed behind paywalls. You copy and paste the link from the official journal site (or its DOI) into the Sci-Hub website and it immediately gives you the PDF. I have no qualms using it. Many researchers who have legitimate access to the journals prefer to use Sci-Hub because its interface is easier, consistent, and better designed. — KK

Learn what synthesizers do
I spent 45 minutes interacting with the sliders and buttons at Learning Synths and now I understand concepts like envelope, attack, decay, sustain, and release. I was having so much fun I didn’t realize I was being taught a lesson, either. — MF

Strikethrough stress note
I started a “stress note” in my Notes app where I keep a list of whatever I’m anxious about. Anytime I add something new I reread my past worries and if they no longer matter (which is usually the case), instead of deleting them I apply the strikethrough style. There is something very calming and self-affirming in doing this, and as the list grows I actually find it very beautiful to look at. — CD

Superior shopping bags
We live in an area where you must bring your own bag to the store. That usually meant recycled paper bags, or floppy cloth bags. At the suggestion of a guest on our Cool Tools podcast, we started using these fantastic Planet E collapsible “bags” that unfold into a rigid cloth box. They are roomier, much easier to pack and unpack, and can carry a lot of weight without distorting their shape. They are lower and wider, more stable so they won’t fall over, easier to move into the car. They fold flat, and seem indestructible, made of recycled plastic bottles. We’ll never go back to other kinds of bags. — KK

Calculate your free time
I like this free tool created by Erik Rood that calculates all the free time you have left in your life. Just input your age and the hours per week you spend on things like sleep, work, commuting, eating, etc. Apparently I have 34 free hours per week. It really makes me rethink what I want to do with it. — CD

Large non-skid cutting mats
This four-pack of colorful, Bellemain 15" x 11" cutting mats (pictured above) is only $11. The bottom is textured so the mat doesn’t slip when you use it. I’ve run them through the bottom rack of the dishwasher several times with no noticeable effect. — MF

The Technium

Recent Readings, 9

Global Greening: Increased CO2 in the atmosphere is plant food. Wild plants of all kinds are growing faster around the world, sequestering CO2 into biomass. This is not the whole climate story, but it should not be ignored. Good summary by Matt Ridley here.

Once a modern heresy, non-Darwinian inheritance, aka Lamarkism, increasing can be shown to sometimes happen in nature. Case in point this recent paper. Question is: how common or important is it ordinarily.

One necessary aspect of the Mirrorworld is scanning the real world in full volumetric 3D. This demo of Matterport's scanning ability is pretty impressive. They scan Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West.

TikTok, Chinese-owned video music platform, is creating a whole new genre of music video -- the music meme, or memetic music, in 15 second clips that spread virally. This ear-opening article is a good introduction. Link.

There's a yearly contest run by JPL for the best strategy to settle 100,000 star systems with human habitation 10,000 years from now. If you have a plan, you submit a simulation based on technology yet to be invented. Link.

The US is headed down a risky path toward 5G that is different from the rest of the world, while China is leading the rest along the other more doable path. Good explanation in @WIRED.  This was a solid, essential, correct piece. I have not seen the argument made elsewhere. It was the article I hoped Wired would run. Link.

What color is the future? If you google "futuristic" you get images in blue and black. Why is that? Good thread on Twitter here.

Cool Tools

Richard Kadrey, NYT Bestselling Author of the Sandman Slim series

Our guests this week is Richard Kadrey. Richard is the New York Times bestselling author of the Sandman Slim supernatural noir series. Sandman Slim was included in Amazon’s “100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime.” Some of Richard’s other books include The Everything Box, Hollywood Dead, and Butcher Bird. He’s also written comics and is a photographer.

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Show notes:

Evoluent VerticalMouse ($90)
I've been in some car accidents, and have been some motorcycle accidents and I have some nerve damage from those, so A regular mouse didn't work for me. Track balls didn't work for me. I used a track pad for a long time.That didn't work for me after a while. And the vertical mouse has been a real, real lifesaver for me. It's a weird device. There's a big learning curve when you first get it, but I think it's a wonderful bit of technology. There are like two buttons on one side and like three buttons on the other, and in the end they're all really useful, but you really make a lot of mistakes at first, and you're moving the device around incorrectly. It's a very frustrating process.It's like if you've ever used Photoshop. It's the same thing where you have this long line of tools on the side. You don't know their names, they're very mysterious. Even the icons don't necessarily match what they do. The vertical mouse is kind of the same thing. It's just a complete mystery at first. And like Photoshop, the best way to learn it is just to play with it.

Holga Digital Camera ($68-116)
This is a wonderful, wonderful device if you're a photographer. If you like photography that is imperfect, and I'm a big fan of that, the Holga is a great camera. I used to use a film Holga, but because you have no idea what you're going to get from a Holga from shot to shot, using film was incredibly expensive. Your traditional Holga is plastic. The viewfinder is virtually useless. The lenses tend to be cheap plastic. So the fun of the Holga was the mystery of it, taking a chance and never knowing what you were going to get. But it became incredibly expensive, shooting whole rolls of film in which you got virtually nothing out of them. But with the digital Holga, you can shoot away and it doesn't matter if you get things wrong. You can always go back and try it again. And if you shoot 50 shots and 50 of them are bad, all you've used is a little bit of memory on a card. It's chunkier than a little point-and-shoot and smaller horizontally. It's like if you took a regular point-and-shoot and just kind of squeezed it in a bit and it kind of squeezed out the the other way. It looks and functions like a toy camera, and in a lot of ways it is, because you have no real control over what you're going to get. You can set it for black and white or color. I prefer black and white for me, especially if you're going to get weird, off-center, grainy shots, I think black and white is perfect and mysterious enough.

My Passport Wireless Pro Portable External Hard Drive ($200)
I'm very big on controlling my media, and I tour for my books, and I travel a lot, and I like to bring my media with me, because I don't trust hotels. They have garbage channels on television. It's hard to stream things. So, I'll just bring my own media. Now with the My Passport Wireless Pro, you can get several terabytes on there, and you can load on photos and music and movies. I tend to put on movies and television shows. And what it is, it's just a little streaming box, and you don't have to rely on hotel wifi, because cause it uses Bluetooth, and it goes straight to your iPad. There's a little battery inside so you can just recharge it. It's about the size of the old Sony portable Discman. It's very energy efficient. It's also very rugged, too.

Region-free Blu-ray DVD Players
It's very easy to find region-free DVD players, or you can hack them. I used to have a very old cheap Chinese player, and it was well known that essentially it was built to hack. There were a few codes you would put in. The codes are almost like what you'd use on a game controller. It's like up, up, left, three, two, and you hit it a few times. And the wonderful part was when you got to the screen where you could turn off the region codes there would be a big message saying you're not supposed to be here. And you knew it was one click away from being able to turn off all the region controls. Region-free Blu-ray is a whole other matter, because with DVDs it's just changing the software. The region-free Blu-ray is a hardware hack, so you have to find them on the gray market. They'll pop up on eBay and even Amazon now if you search on "region-free Blu-ray." You can get them through there, and I was very surprised to see them. I do weird searches like that every now and then just to see where the technology is landing, and you had to go kind of underground a few years ago, but now I don't suppose law enforcement looks or cares, but they're much easier to find. And they don't cost that much more than a regular player. They used to be around $600-$800 because people were doing hardware hacks. Now you can get them for in the range of $250 to $300.

Also mentioned:

The Grand Dark
It's a big book for me. It's actually, literally, it's my longest novel. It's my most complex. It's a big step for me. I didn't want to be known as a pulp writer forever. The Grand Dark is a much more serious book than I've ever written before. I've been obsessed with the Weimar Period in Germany for many years, and so this is a a dark fantasy riffing off the Weimar Period, but being a fantasy, there are also robots and genetic engineering. And it's a very different kind of protagonist than I've written. I usually write very powerful, driven people, but this is about a 21-year-old bike messenger. He likes to take drugs. He likes to hang out with his girlfriend, who is a pretty actress, and he's really a very ordinary guy who gets sucked into a government conspiracy simply because of his own desire to be oblivious. This is a book with robots, genetic engineering, secret submarine bases, action, adventure, but it's all couched in this story that's of a city between two wars and they know the second war is coming, and there's nothing they can do about it. So they are extraordinarily decadent, trying to get in as much sensory joy as possible before the next war destroys them.


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Cool Tools

Savage Builds/Checker Plus/

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Maker extreme
I enjoy the way Adam Savage, formerly Mythbuster co-host, builds complicated things. He has a new show, Savage Builds, running on Discovery Channel. In the first episode he made a “real” bullet-proof, flying Ironman suit, which is inspiring. For the next 7 days only, that episode is streaming for free on the internet. — KK

Chrome extension for using multiple Gmail accounts
I have multiple Gmail accounts that I use throughout the day and I developed a bad habit of keeping them open and constantly clicking through tabs to check the status of my inbox even though I know nothing’s changed. Checker Plus is a chrome extension that lets you preview, delete, star and archive email without opening up Gmail or leaving your current window, and it works with multiple accounts. Since I’ve been using it, I have definitely been more productive. — CD

All the flights possible
I am often frustrated when trying to fly from one obscure place to another obscure place with as few stops in between. Most flight sites want you to keep the journey on the same airline. What I want is “show me ALL the flights from this airport,” and I’ll figure out a route on my own. No surprise, there’s a site for that, called appropriately enough I can assemble a route, sometimes with obscure airlines, that won’t show up elsewhere. — KK

Best small flashlight
My friend Rob gave me the ThruNite Archer LED Flashlight ($30) and it is the best small flashlight I’ve ever owned. It throws a bright beam, and because it’s made from aluminum, it feels solid. Importantly, it uses AA batteries instead of less-common batteries often required in bright flashlights. I bought one for my father for Father’s Day because I knew he’d appreciate it. — MF

Hands-on introduction to machine learning
My 16-year-old daughter and I are interested in learning about artificial intelligence, and we found a YouTube series produced by Google that has easy-to-understand examples that you can program yourself using the Python programming language. The first program we wrote was only 6 lines long, but it can tell the difference between an apple and an orange. — MF

See what’s in people’s bags
We have a new weekly newsletter called What’s in my bag? Each week, one interesting person shares four favorite things they carry in their bag. Last week Mark shared the four things he always travels with, which he keeps in Japanese see-through zipper bags. Check it out! — CD

The Technium

Cyberweapons: A Real Worry

There is not too much about technology that I worry about. But one technological area I do worry a lot about is cyber war, cyber security, cyber conflict. My worry stems from the lack of accountability and the lack of consensus in this arena. It is devilishly difficult to discern what is being done cyberwise, and who is doing it. At the same time, there is no consensus about which actions need to be disclosed, or monitored, or verified. Nor is there real consensus on what actions are allowed, permitted, prohibited, discouraged, or encouraged. Finally, there are no limits, remedies, restrictions that can be enforced.

What this means is that right now there are huge cyber operations happening around the world every day. Some of these are defensive, but many are offensive attacks. Systems are breached, probed, potential damage is rehearsed, future secret entrances installed, small things are broken. The US, China, Russia, Isreal, Iran, North Korea — to name some of the most active countries — plus many more non-state, quasi-state, organized crime agents, like hacker groups, are involved in huge maneuvers that are invisible to the rest of the world. Increasingly these data vs data conflicts are touching the physical infrastructure. The world’s electrical grids, transportation networks, hospitals, water systems all depend on an intangible data structure, where these skirmishes are taking place. So far only a few incursions have crippled physical civic services; a hospital is cut from electricity, or traffic lights are disrupted. My worry is that because there is neither transparency nor agreed norms, these mutual attacks will escalate until something horrible happens. There is no push-back on this arms race. The public doesn’t see it, and the experts who do see it, don’t agree on where to go.

We beings on this planet have evolved an elaborate set of rules about how to conduct war. Weirdly we have agreed on how to kill each other. Some ways are okay and some are not. You can’t kill someone you take as  prisoner. You can’t intentionally kill children. You can’t torture. Etc. As new weapons were invented we added them to our agreement. We have agreed to avoid using nuclear bombs (although some countries, including the US, still make them).

Cyber weapons are new, and have not been included in our agreements. In war is it okay to take down a nation’s banking system? Is it permissible to disable everyone’s phones? Should the world accept hacking interference in another nation’s election?

Problematic weapons like nuclear, chemical, and biological ones, have extensive, complicated programs of verification to make sure our collective agreement is adhered to. Part of that process is self-reporting, self-disclosure by those who posses these weapons. None of this disclosure is happening in cyberspace.

None of the countries active in using these new weapons will acknowledge they have the weapons; they deny they are using them, and don’t even communicate when others use the weapons against them. There is a conspiracy of silence in cyberwar. That is the danger.

This silence and denial also creates cover for non-state attacks by criminals, rouge state hackers, naive teenage hackers, to do damage. They are hidden behind the same cloak that nations are hiding behind. Together state and non-state hacking can add up to a potentially mutual destruction. Today every developed country is potentially very vulnerable to a cyber attack. And soon every developed country will be capable of delivering a crippling attack.

We have nuclear arms treaty because we realized we had the capability of mutual destruction . Our next step is to realize we have the capability of mutual CYBER destruction. The remedy is  similar: a global agreement on acceptable use of cyber weapons, and a public accounting of those weapons.

A significant hurdle for the accountability of cyber weapons is their close alignment with intelligence gathering. Cyberwar is fought with information, and information is the heart of intelligence. It is very difficult to unravel cyber weapons from cyber tools. There is the thinnest line between hacking a system to learn about it (intelligence gathering) and hacking it to learn how to damage it (reconnaissance) or hacking it to damage it (war). The same tools (weapons?) may be used in each case.

Understandably, the intelligence departments of nations are reluctant to reveal their methods, or share their tools, or in any way handicap themselves. Cyber-weapons derive from cyber spy tools, and it is a challenge to untangle the two. Knowledge and intelligence can be wielded as a weapon. It’s hard to see a way to account for information weapons that does not expose information spying.

But not impossible. We can regulate specific actions via treaties and agreements. Rather than outlaw tools (or weapons), we can outlaw outcomes. We might agree that taking a banking system down is not acceptable, whether you use a computer virus, a social media hack, or a EMP bomb blast. Interfering in an election should be prohibited via any method, even the most indirect.

The remaining challenge is mutual verification of the source of cyber actions. Tracking the source of actions is made difficult by the dark web. Much can be hidden by anonymizers and cleverness. But a lot online is hidden because the global internet is a patchwork of national networks, and because the actual humans creating attacks are shielded from inspection by national laws. Hackers in country X casting spells on country Y, even if proven bad, may be out of reach of country Y.

Part of the needed reform for a consensus on cyber war extends to making it harder to hide behind the walls erected by nations. I predict the nations will begin to cooperate more in disclosing the source of actions, including their own departments, for this simple reason: nations will come to understand that there is no national cyber security without global cyber security.

Rather than kumbaya global peace, pure self-interest will drive nations to be more cooperative in the cyber dimensions. When you have a global network, your security is only reliable as the weakest link in that system.  Attackers bleed to the least secure edges where they can continue to cause damage.  Ultimately security within your nation will fail unless the security of all the other nations is also maintained.

In addition to improving the overt security in peacetime, this requirement for global mutual security can drive the transparency needed to regulate cyber weapons.  My only worry is that it may take a huge cyber disaster with many people dying before nations come together in agreement on how we should treat these new weapons.

The Technium

Recent Readings, 8

IMHO, reading this subReddit written by an AI feels very similar to reading a subReddit written by humans that post on Reddit. Link.

Pregnant women operate at a the limit of human energy endurance, just slightly ahead of elite ultramarathoners. The limiting factor is not heart, lung or muscles, but the amount of calories your digestive system can process -- about 4,000 calories per day. Link.

E-sports are huge, mostly in Asia, but worldwide. This illuminating video explains the financial landscape of e-sports.

The perennial question of why ancient China, which invented most important inventions centuries before the West did, did not invent the most power invention of the scientific method, gets a summary answer here.

"The new American religion of UFOs. Belief in aliens is like faith in religion — and may come to replace it." I believe this. This is the headline of a Vox article. Link.

To my ear these AI-generated voices of famous thinkers are a completely convincing simulation. You can make Bill Gates, or Jane Goodall, or Stephen Wolfram say anything you want. Go to the Select Speakers section and pull down a pundit's voice sample. Link.

Awareness of Chinese science fiction is beginning to rise in the west, and this tide is swelling in China as well. At the forefront is the author of The Three Body Problem. Two articles delve into the new wave. A New Yorker profile of Liu Cixin is gracefully done and incredibly revealing about Chinese society. The second is an Economist round up of other Chinese sci-fi just behind Mr. Liu.


The Technium

Arrival of the Babel Fish

In the very near future, maybe in ten years, we’ll have earpods that will do real time language translation. Someone speaks Greek to you, and with the slightest delay, you’ll hear English. You respond in English, they’ll hear Greek. It’ll work for most spoken languages, x to x. You might recognize this as the Babel fish in Douglas Adams’ fiction, but this one will be real. We are not far from it today. I’ve been using Google Translate on my phone when traveling in China. I can speak or write English through it, or listen or read Chinese from it. It’s about 80-90% accurate, which is good enough to speak with taxi cab drivers, or navigate as a tourist. I have also been using a couple of different AI translation services, such as Trint, to create a text transcript from podcasts. It listens to the podcast audio file and puts the words into text with about 95% accuracy. It does this in minutes and for a few dollars.

When even more accurate machine translation becomes available in ever more handy forms — like earbuds, or embedded into smart glasses — I can imagine huge economic changes arising from this technology. The first thing it will do is to enable people around the world who have very desirable skills, except the skill of English, to participate in the global economy. This Babel fish would permit a talented programmer in Jakarta who spoke no English to work for a Google. It would allow a talented programmer in Utah to work for a Chinese company, in Chinese. Nor does the translation have to happen online. Two employees in the same room could each be wearing the Babel fish. Of course it is immensely effective combined with virtual telepresence. When a colleague is teleporting in from a remote place to appear virtually, it is relatively easy to translate what they are saying in real time because all that information is being captured anyway. For even greater verisimilitude, their mouth movement can be reconfigured to match what they are saying in translation so it really feels they are speaking your language. It might be even be use to overcome heavy accents in the same language. Going further, the same technology could simply translate your voice into one that was a different gender, or more musical, or improved in some way. It would be your “best” voice. Some relationships might prefer to meet this way all the time because the ease of communication was greater than in real life.

This unleashing and liquidity of talent would be a huge boost to the global economy and would help in leveling some of the inequality between wages around the world.

There would be other effects: films, music, videos, books would not need to be laboriously and expensively translated beforehand, or to reach some level of popularity before getting dubbed. Now with the Babel fish they would be instantly subtitled, dubbed, translated in real time, on demand. Over time, even regional differences (American vs Australian) could be accounted for. This universal translation-on-demand (UTOD) immediately increases the potential audience size for creative works, increasing the probability that obscure interests can find the thousand true fans around the world it’ll need to be sustainable.

I can also imagine this UTOD technology aiding migration and human mobility.  When the global population plunges later this century, mega-cities around the world will begin to compete for workers and citizens; without the added hurdle of having to speak a new language will make it much easier to migrate. Many might move to Tokyo if they could virtually speak Japanese fluently.

UTOD might diminish the dominance of English as a second language. Why bother with it? On the other hand it is very possible that having simultaneous translation whispered into your ear all day for years would, over time, with the right attention, act as a teacher and help a person learn another language. Or the program could be modified to accelerate such learning if someone desired.

Today I can use Google Translate for free, just like other Google products. Ideally there would be a free version of Babel fish so that those to whom this would most make a difference would have full access to it. But we know free has its own costs. There will be pressure to insert advertising into UTOD. One could imagine how annoying it would be to be conversing with someone when every now and then you are interrupted with an ad that you both hear in your language. Worse, the ad could be related to what you were talking about, since the machine would “know” exactly what you are talking about in order to translate it. Other biz models would not interrupt you in conversation, but would try to exploit that very specific data in other modes or parts of your life. The poor and desperate are likely to take that bargain, but their data is less valuable (being poor and desperate). Alternatively, there would be a paid (no ad, no track) version.

UTOD, encased in a wearable like a Babel fish, is almost here. If adopted widely its consequences would be enormous, and I think, sudden. Even though it has been gradually improving, it might come as a huge “overnight” surprise to the world.


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