Cool Tools


Insider industry news
I’ve become of a fan of Inside newsletters. Once a day I get a brief summary of what’s been reported in a narrow specialized field, like AI, or VR, or Space, or Robotics. Succinct, select, in depth, and free. Inside also offers newsletters focused on each of the big tech companies, like Amazon or Google. And they now offer inside industry news on fashionable sectors like Cannabis or Beer. – KK

Fake follower audit
None of us have as many followers as we think we do. Up to half may be bots or shills. Every now and then I give myself a reality check by seeing how many fake followers I have on Twitter. I enter my twitter handle into SparkToro. Ouch, 21% are fake. — KK

Find the shortest book on any subject is a search engine for books that estimates reading time to help you find the shortest book on any subject. It’s not flawless, but you can never have too many book search tools. — CD

Quick unsubscribing
I get signed up for a lot of newsletters and PR lists without my consent. I used to take the time to scroll down to the bottom of each email newsletter and click the unsubscribe link (if there was one), but now I just use Gmail’s “Block” to send them forevermore to my spam folder. — MF

Savory meat marinade
My favorite marinade for meat is easy to make and savory. The original recipe is from America’s Test Kitchen and exists behind a paywall so I can’t share it, but the Southwestern Marinade ingredient list here is the exact same. I keep a printed copy in my kitchen. — CD

Card magic DVD
I’ve been interested in card magic for the last five years or so. The best way to learn is not by books (which are confusing), but by videos (which make the sleights and handlings clear). A great video collection for beginner and intermediate card magicians is the 7-DVD set called Complete Card Magic ($25). Get this and start amazing people. – MF


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Freeze dried taxidermy/TSA-proof knife/Python Tutorials

Freeze dried taxidermy
Occasionally a small bird strikes one of our windows and dies. Rather than bury it, I freeze dry it. I insert the whole bird into a baggie with a pack of desiccant to keep it dry. The desiccant gel slowly absorbs the moisture in the bird even after it freezes. After a year it is fully dried, and can be kept on a shelf or display indefinitely with all its feathers. This works on birds the size of a sparrow or smaller. — KK

TSA-proof knife
After decades of using a Utili-key as my choice of a small knife to pass through airport security, I lost it in the woods. I replaced it with Victorinox SwissCard. This tool is a mini-Swiss Army knife flattened into a plastic holder the size of credit card but thicker. It has a tiny (1.5 inch) sharp blade, scissors, tweezers, a pen, toothpick, and a pin. You can carry it in your wallet or bag. Goes through security. There is a knock-off version which remarkably adds a magnifier, a light, and four screwdriver heads in the same size card for half the price at $9 — but you’ll need to sharpen the flimsy blade. — KK

Python Tutorials
One of the things I miss about the 1980s was writing programs for fun in BASIC. A couple of years ago I started playing around with Python. It’s easy to learn, and powerful enough to do anything I would want to automate. Christian Thompson’s YouTube channel has wonderful Python tutorials for beginners. Check out the one on how to program a Pong clone. — MF

Advice book on Audible
At the behest of my best friend, I finally downloaded the Audible version of Tiny Beautiful Things, advice on life and love from Cheryl Strayed’s column Dear Sugar. The book is a collection of the most heartbreaking and honest letters seeking help and the advice given. Strayed’s thought-out responses pull from her own life experiences dealing with her mother’s death, drug addiction, divorce, and now as a happily married wife and mother. They are beautiful written and incredibly moving. This book elicits empathy, laughter and at times, lots of tears. There were a few times I was literally sitting in traffic and sobbing listening to her stories. I highly recommend. — CD

Read books in new languages is an online tool that helps you learn languages by reading a book in a foreign language with your native language side-by-side. You can click on any sentence to hear it out loud. I’m not sure how helpful it is to learn an entirely new language, but it’s useful for me to read in Spanish from time to time to remind myself of how sentences are structured differently. Right now, I spend a little time each day working my way through Alice in Wonderland. — CD

Cheap DVD Reader
No one in my family of four has a CD or DVD drive in their computer. That’s a good thing, because we rarely need one. When we do (usually to rip a movie or copy photos or music), I pull out this $15 USB CD/DVD drive and plug it into a laptop. — MF



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Theo Gray's Mad Science

Theo Gray's Mad Science ($17) is a rare home-chemistry book where the advice of "don't try this at home" is, for once, appropriate. I usually complain about the scare mongering of home chemistry, but half of the experiments in this how-to book really are extremely dangerous. But the other half are pretty cool. There are no explicit step-by-step instructions given for any of the experiments, just guidelines of what to do. Gray, whose column appears in Popular Science, wants you to do some research and not just be a "script kiddie." Stunning photos of what to expect from each project help. My son and I have done a few of these and they do work. The prime lesson engendered by this book is the sense that the material world is far more accessible to hacking than first appears.

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Laura Cochrane, Content Strategist

Our guest this week is Laura Cochrane. Laura Cochrane is a content strategist living in Berkeley, California. She currently works at NEO.LIFE, a biotech publication. Before that, she was an editor at two different DIY project publications: MAKE magazine, where she worked alongside Mark, and Instructables. Her hobbies include rock climbing, drawing, dancing, and yoga.

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:

Tom Bihn Daylight Backpack
A couple years ago, before a trip to Europe, I was on the hunt for a new day backpack. The JanSport I had had since high school had holes in it. I wanted something with a clean, minimal design. It’s actually a challenge to find a backpack that doesn’t have a bunch of random zip compartments, pouches, folds, mesh details, and gratuitous textures added for seemingly no reason at all. So I was excited when I found the Tom Bihn Daylight Backpack. It’s got a simple rounded trapezoid shape with a single diagonal zip that provides access to the front pocket. I got it in this really nice French blue color that looks good with most everything I wear. It also shipped fast, and as I recall there was a handwritten note thanking me for my order. It’s made in Seattle, and the quality is solid. I’ve stuffed it until it’s quite full and the seams have held up for the past two years as I’ve used it as a work commuter backpack.

I’ve loved this website for a long time. It’s an online photo gallery born out of the era of peer-to-peer filesharing. It was started in 2004 when a musician named Rich Vogel was using a filesharing program to find music and instead stumbled on a folder of photos. It’s still getting updated periodically, though I’m not sure how often. The collection is thoughtfully curated, like an epic mix tape. Though I can’t always put my finger on why one photo works so well next to another that seems unrelated in every way. When I want to be reminded of how beautiful the imperfection of real life is, I go here. These photos are often the mistakes, the ones the photographer never intended. Some are blurry, poorly framed, or double exposed. People have been captured with weird expressions or unflattering angles, but that’s part of the appeal. They’re stills from the cutting room floor of life. I find humor, horror, love, and glory, in a way that feels rare.

Audio Dharma podcast
Audio Dharma is a regularly updated collection of all the talks and guided meditations given at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California. A massage therapist recommended it to me after a particularly emotional session a few years ago. I started out mostly listening to the guided meditations, but lately I’ve been more into listening to the talks. They work well for someone who is listening in short bursts, so I’ll put it on for my 15-minute work commutes in the morning and evening. In moments where I’m feeling particularly stressed or sad, these talks can have the effect of helping me change what feels like a less-than-ideal metaphorical posture: when I’m overly focused on the future or the past I have this sense of leaning forward, like my mind is two steps ahead of my body. Audio Dharma helps me realign to something closer to upright — a posture of gentle curiosity. My favorite talks are the ones where the teacher picks a simple human experience, like uncertainty, desire, grief, or generosity, and they explore it in a way that usually leaves me feeling like I have a new perspective on a very common human experience. Most of the podcasts or music I listen to feel like they fill my head with noise that requires additional processing or decompressing afterward, but this feels like the opposite. To use a computer analogy, Audio Dharma defragments my brain.

PocketDisc crocheted frisbee
I like throwing around a frisbee, but I enjoy it even more with my crocheted frisbee. I don’t remember how I came into possession of one of these, but I love it. The main things that make it awesome are that it never hurts if someone throws it at you hard, and it folds up and can fit easily in pockets, purses, and bags. Also: it flies quite well, it can be given as a gift to people of all ages, and it’s safer to use inside the house. When I’m feeling silly, I’ve been known to flip it inside out and wear it as a hat. The only places I wouldn’t recommend it are around dogs, because I imagine they would quickly chew it to shreds, and on beaches. On the beach, the lip of the disc picks up sand when it lands on the ground, and then the next time someone catches it next, the sand gets released into the catcher’s face. I’m sure I could brush up on my crocheting skills and make myself one from scratch, but I feel like these are a good deal, for the money. They also make great gifts.



We have hired professional editors to help create our weekly podcasts and video reviews. So far, Cool Tools listeners have pledged $377 a month. Please consider supporting us on Patreon. We have great rewards for people who contribute! – MF

Cool Tools

Can-Gun 1

Using your index finger to press and steer a can of spray paint gets old very quickly. If your paint job lasts more than a few minutes, you really should use a snap-on pistol grip($5). It saves your knuckle, keeps paint off your trigger finger, and gives you an easy way to guide the spray. For years I've used an earlier model of this grip (called simply Can-Gun), but that one was only operated with a single finger trigger. This new version uses your whole palm. It's comfortable, quick-on and off, and the only way to spray. I had a 5-can job on a chain-link fence and the Can-Gun made it kind of fun. Even for small spray paint jobs, I slip one of these on.

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Long conversations/Freewrite alternative/CloudConvert

Long conversations
A “long conversation” is a new format for a conference. Two speakers begin a conversation on stage. After 15 minutes one of the two speakers is replaced by a new speaker and the conversation continues, and every 15 minutes for the next 8 hours a speaker is swapped out. (Each speaker converses for 30 minutes.) The day is engaging, unpredictable, passionate, diverse, informative, and entertaining. It’s a format invented by Long Now Foundation that is worth stealing. For an example, here are highlights from a long conversation held at the Smithsonian. — KK

Cheap alternative to Freewrite
I’ve been coveting the Freewrite typewriter since the Kickstarter launched a few years back, but I can’t justify spending $500 on one. Thanks to this blogpost I discovered that the now discontinued Alphasmart Neo2 is a cheap alternative. I found one used on Amazon for $35 from a reputable seller who listed it in working condition and included the USB cord. I wasn’t sure if a distraction-free typewriter would actually help me write more, but the answer is yes, it does! — CD

Free file conversion
CloudConvert is a free conversion service that supports more than 200 file formats and you don’t have to download any software to use it. I mostly use it to convert Google WebP files into JPEGS so that the images are usable in WordPress and Adobe products. — CD

Bingeable British drama
Ever since the last season of Downton Abbey wrapped up, I’ve missed a good British historical drama. That itch has been satisfied by The Crown (on Netflix) a lovely, beautifully casted and acted drama about the life of the still living Queen of England. The series begins in the 1940s and runs till today. Remarkably, it’s far more entertaining than I would have thought. It has everything, including real drama, and actual history, and is more educational than most documentaries. With 20 episodes so far (and a 3rd season on the way), it is superbly bingeable. — KK

No show, no slip socks
I’ve tried a few different brands of low-cut “no show” socks and these are the lowest and best. They are super stretchy and they don’t slip off. Seven pairs cost $15. — MF

Download past Amazon purchases
As a freelancer, I need to keep track of office supplies and other items that are tax deductible. I buy almost everything on Amazon, and I recently learned that you can download your past purchases as spreadsheet files. This is going to save me a lot of time because I can filter out things like food, clothing, toys, etc. — MF



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Five quotables/Sleeping Dragon/WeCroak

Five quotables

These gems keep ringing in my head. — KK

Don’t be the best. Be the only. — Jerry Garcia

If you really want to learn how something works, try to change it. — Matt Mazur

For something to be beautiful it doesn’t have to be pretty. — Rei Kawakubo

If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere. — Frank A. Clark

Eighty percent of success is showing up. — Woody Allen

Ambient music generator
Sleeping Dragon is a generative music application, available for free on Mac and Windows. You adjust sliders, and the software creates a unique piece of never-ending music. I listen to it while I work. If you don’t want to download the software, you can just listen to the calming sounds it generates on its website. — MF

Death reminder app
WeCroak (iOSAndroid) is a bit morbid but I love it. At random times throughout the day I get a notification banner that says “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” with instructions to open the app for a quote. All the quotes are about dying. The app is inspired by Bhutanese culture where one is expected to think about death five times a day to achieve happiness. So far my favorite quote to contemplate is a question from Pema Chödrön: "Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” — CD

Logo-free baseball cap
In my never-ending quest to wear clothes without logos, I found a great source of logo-less baseball caps (better than the discontinued Daiso hats). These hefty Falari caps are $9 and come in a refreshing variety of 34 solid colors. Mine are canary yellow. — KK

An honest book about motherhood
The Female Assumption is a raw and honest look at becoming a mother and the pressures on women to reproduce. I couldn’t put it down. Mother of 3, Melanie Holmes interviewed mothers from all over to accurately portray what happens behind the curtain of motherhood. She also includes the stories of women who have consciously chosen to not be mothers. This book is a well-balanced pros and cons list for either path, and a reminder that whatever you decide for yourself is the right choice. Every young woman should read this. — CD

Magnetic phone mount for cars
I’ve tried many different phone mounts, and this magnetic one ($7) is the best. It’s a rubberized magnet that attaches to a car vent. It comes with a metallic sticker to attach to the back of your phone. When I get in my car, I just hold the phone against the magnetic surface and the phone snaps against it. It is much more convenient than other phone mounts that use spring-loaded clips. — MF


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Recently Paul Saffo and Stewart Brand were raving about the Buff, the all-in-one garment. I am picky and a minimalist when it comes to clothing, but the Buff, in addition to being a shape-shifter, also weighs almost nothing, so I thought I should try it. It's pretty neat, now part of my pack. -- KK

Here is what Paul Saffo wrote:

Y'all probably have known about Buff forever, but in case not, this thing is way cool. Described as "the original multi-functional Seamless Wear", it is a stretchy microfiber tube that can be a neckerchief/neck-scarf, headband, wristband, foulard, bandit-mask, hand-warmer, balaclava and more. I mostly use it as a neck-scarf when biking, and on hikes when it turns cool. Because it is microfiber, it has great thermal and wicking properties -- and it is a great glasses-cleaner.

Stewart Brand adds:

Do see their online movies of the ways to rig a Buff.

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Oblique Strategies

How to get unstuck. Pick a card at random and either 1) do what it says or 2) let it lead you to another idea. It's amazingly effective. This handsomely boxed stack of cards was created by the lateral genius Brian Eno and good friend Pete Schmidt in 1975 to get themselves and other musicians unstuck in the studio. It's been through four updated editions since.

I use this tool in any design situation to think differently. In life I've found it more productive than throwing the I-Ching or staring at the wall.

This fifth printed edition on heavy silky stock will pop your rut.

More than you wanted to know about Oblique Strategies in its various editions and forms, plus links to digital versions are available at this amazingly complete fan site: Oblique Strategies

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The Shape of Life

This 8-part (4 DVD set) series is a National Science Foundation/PBS production that is the most taxonomic of any presentation I've seen. The Shape of Life addresses the 8 major categories of animal life -- phylum by phylum. Starts with sponges, heads toward round worms, and so on. You get the full diverse view of life -- all intelligently organized around a taxonomic framework (without the vocabulary), and expertly illustrated with great (mostly undersea) BBC-type footage. Despite the wonderful nature photography, the creators work really hard to convey the innovations offered by each phylum, and it works. This series cured me of a rather vague notion of animal diversity, despite my work at All Species. I'd love to ingest the same mind-opening treatment for the plant world, as well as the other 3 kingdoms.

[New DVD sets are available on Amazon for as little as $12, including shipping - MF]

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The Klutz Book of Knots

You can triumph in 99% of life's challenges knowing how to tie 6 basic knots -- which is probably 4 more knots than you currently know. The thing about knots is that a few will do if you really own them. Forget about those 300 ingenious knots sailors use, and for now master the few versatile ties taught in this cleverly engineered book. I own most of the knot books, and this is the best one for learning the ropes. It's for klutzes.

Volunteer to teach a boy/girl scout troop using this book; you'll learn fast.

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Pocket WiFi/Parrot Teleprompter/Do nothing

Cheap fast wireless for travel to Japan
I spent almost five weeks in Japan this summer. My T-Mobile plan includes international data but it is pretty slow so I rented a Pocket WiFi from eConnect. I ordered it in advance and picked it up at the post office at Narita Airport. I bought the 50GB plan for about $125. When I came close to running out (our traveling party of five used it pretty much non-stop on their phones and laptops) I bought more data for about $1 per GB. It was very fast and worked everywhere we went, including the remote mountain town of Koya-san. At the airport on the way home I put it in the return mailer and dropped it off at the post office. — MF

Affordable teleprompter
When I make videos where I need to talk to the camera (the audience) I can’t remember what I need to say, so I use this affordable teleprompter. Teleprompters project my visible text on an angled glass that the camera is shooting through. Normally this is a very expensive very cumbersome rig, but the Parrot Teleprompter uses a cheap plastic case, glass mirror, and a selection of lens rings to fit on to many digital cameras. It cleverly uses your smart phone as the screen. For about $100 I got a perfectly useful compact teleprompter mounted on my tripod that worked exactly as I needed. I can deliver my lines easily while directly gazing at the viewers and it looks very natural. — KK

Do nothing for 2 minutes
Expand this webpage to full-screen, turn up the sound and listen to ocean waves for two minutes. If you click on your mouse or press the keyboard the timer starts over. Just enjoy the break. — CD

Home blood type test
My 15-year-old daughter learned about blood types in school and was curious to learn her blood type. I ordered two of these kits (each $7 kit has two tests) so our whole family could find our what our blood types are. The included auto-lance makes it easy to draw blood (it hurts just a little, not much) and it was interesting to see how our blood types clotted differently. — MF

Safe alternative to candles
These Luminara battery-operated taper candles really do look real. I love having them on every night on the dining room table and watching the flame flicker. It makes the room look so elegant. There’s even a timer setting to turn off automatically after 5 hours. — CD

Five quotes

      The simplification of anything is always sensational. — G.K. Chesterton
      The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. — Bertrand Russell
      You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body. — C.S. Lewis
      Are we being good ancestors? — Jonas Salk
      When I grow up I want to be a little boy. — Joseph Heller

Five quotes above that tickle me. — KK

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Shop Cool Tools Scam

The site is a recent store on Shopify. They seem to advertise and sell cheap Chinese products like iPhone accessories via ads on Facebook. Their logo looks like this:


Within the last two days we have received two letters from very angry customers who googled “Cool Tools” and wrote to us with their complaints.

First letter:

I recently ordered an item from your website for 24 dollars. I have had a person come to my door asking for an additional £20 customs charge. I believe this is for your item order #CT2085598. I have refused to pay this as I was not made aware at the time of purchase that there would be a customs charge of nearly double the price of the item. I would like to cancel this item. Please arrange that for me. I have tried to contact you and read your refund policy online but the links are not open to contact you on my phone anyway. I believe you advertised this item on my Facebook page. Please refund my money and let me know you have received this email. I will report what happens on my page.

When we informed them it was not our website, they replied:

Well it may not be your website. It may have come through to me on an ad in Facebook. The point is I have ordered a product from your company which I have paid 24 dollars for and I was not made aware that there would be a customs charge of double this. How do I cancel this order and get a refund please ?

Second letter, responding to our claim that it was not our website and we don’t sell anything:

Am I to believe that Cool Tools web site actually thinks they have the Legal Right to take money out of my bank account & keep it under the pretense that they have actually fulfilled their end of an agreement to sell me a product when they never had any intention of delivering said product to me? You people have basically stolen $24.04 from me and are now trying to jibber jabber jaw some BULL SHIT about how you are entitled to keep it by saying you don’t “sell anything” other than advice. You have Got to be kidding me. Trust me when I say that unless I receive my product or my money back immediately, I will spend the rest of my life making Your Life MISERABLE. Don’t think I can do it. Ha! You people are the Scum of the Earth & I will be fully justified in that effort. Any Judge, Lawyer, or average person would agree with me and more than likely join me in the effort to see you brought to Justice. I best be hearing from you very soon or count on looking over your shoulder but never knowing when or what’s coming. ASSHOLES!!!!!

These aren’t the only complaints. Checking the web yields negative reviews on TrustPilot:

We’ve been reviewing cool tools for 15 years, pointing interested buyers to Amazon, but we don’t sell anything ourselves. But I can understand customer’s confusion. We have contacted and filed a trademark infringement report to Shopify, but I doubt they will do anything. To add to the confusion, I think these fraudulent sales are being done through Facebook ads, under the name Cool Tools. We have of course tried to contact the owners behind this, but like the ripped off customers, we get no response. This could get worse before it gets better.

In the meantime, don’t buy from a Cool Tools ad on Facebook. If you have been ripped off by Shop Cool Tools, please tell Shopify.

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Mr. McGroovy's Box Rivets

Cardboard is a wonderful building material. You can do far more with it than you might expect. Use it to make furniture, sculpture, models, and of course play structures. The common way to assemble projects with cardboard boxes is to slap pieces together with duct tape. But tape is clumsy, expensive, will unpeel outdoors in weather, looks clunky, and won't take paint. A cool alternative are these Kevlar-like rivets specially designed for box cardboard. One shape does both sides. The rivets sport a grippy ratchet that clinches them close, yet enables them to be reused. The large button gives them holding power and allows you to make joints that can swing, too. We've found that you need either two people working, or ape-long arms, to squeeze both sides of the rivet pairs. Also, they are really made for the double wall corrugated cardboard of the kind you find in large appliance boxes; on thin cardboard they aren't as prettily snug, but still will hold fine. A set of 100 (50 pairs) is enough for a small maze.

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Simple games are the best. Tangrams are an old puzzle based on a set of elemental shapes that can be arranged in thousands of different patterns. To recreate a given picture is challenging, yet not too daunting even for kids. Playing gently encourages lateral thinking. It exercises a geometrical logic, rather than words or numbers. The puzzles are almost like peanuts; you keep wanting just one more.

We use tangrams as an after dinner parlor game. Everyone gets a set and we compete to find the solution first. Since the shapes can be contained in one large square, you can easily cut your own version from cardboard or plastic (and we have). But I've found that this Tangoes model ($9) is precise, won't wear out, and crates up easily and tidily. Each Tangoes case contains two sets of tangrams (in two different colors) and a nifty set of puzzle pattern cards, all of which slide into a plastic case with instructions on the inside. It's a very nice package. We have several sets, to fill all the seats at a table.

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The Mind Map Book

Mind maps are a tool for thinking. Instead of arranging your ideas in a sequence -- as a list of words -- you draw them in an arboreal fashion, radiating out from one starting notion. Mind maps use pictures instead of words, radial branches instead of linear lists, starfish instead of ladders, and associations instead of priorities -- and as a result you think different. The visual trees you generate as you mindmap mirror the dendritic nature of our brain, and seem to flow more organically and (after practice) with less effort than the rigid discipline of making 1,2,3 textual notes.

They are easy to doodle. Anyone can make them. Kids and CEOs as well as creative types. I've come to employ this style of radial association in my own note taking and personal brainstorming. You don't need this book to do it, but the book will help you refine your style, and it will help you expend its use. The authors, who've been perfecting and evangelizing this technique for decades, offer advice on how to use mindmaps to teach, as a form of diary, and most importantly, as a group exercise, say in corporate brainstorming sessions.

There are software programs for mindmapping (which I have not tried), but for me the intensely kinetic mode of drawing ideas (if even on tiny scratch paper) is a great part of the technique's ability to produce new and different perspectives.

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Pentel Pocket Brush Pen

Leave it to the Japanese to create a brush pen. This pocketable pen has a super fine brush tip of actual bristles, perfect for tiny Kanji characters, or of course, doodling in your journal, or sketching in your Moleskine. While it's hugely popular with comic book folks and cartoonists, artists of all stripes have picked one up for their paper work. The feel is incredibly tactile and lovely. It works like a fountain pen, with replaceable rich ink cartridges. Once capped it doesn't leak as far as I can tell. (There's a moment of panic when you first assemble it since the instructions are 100% in Japanese, but just insert the ball-bearing end of the ink capsule into the tip.) You can purchase other color inks as well.

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Spray Adhesive

What magnificent stuff. Glues together thin layers of paper products such as cardboard, photographs, foam core, even light fabrics, firmly and evenly. Most of the time it's superior to rubber cement, white glue, tape or contact cement. Comes in various formulations. 3M's Spray Mount is most versatile. You can find archival versions, too.

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Making Comics

Magnificent! A work of genius. The best how-to manual ever published. I could keep piling on the superlatives because this book is simply a masterpiece. At one level, it is a comic book about how to make comics, and for that it is supreme; the best. It will walk you through every step of making a comic, including how to make them on the web, digitally, or in pen and ink. I've been working on a near-completed graphic novel, and every page has told me something important and spot on. With brilliant graphics, Scott McCloud combines the most profound insights from his two previous books, Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. But in this book he raises your understanding of graphic communication further by making every lesson utterly practical and useful for both novice and expert. I can't imagine anyone ever doing a comic manual better.

However, even if you are not planning on making a graphic novel, this book is a gold mine. McCloud's section on constructing facial expressions and emotions is astounding, and worth the price of the book alone. The clever way McCloud arrays human expressions in one chart reminds me of the first time I saw all the colors arranged in a color wheel; it's the same aha! The insights McCloud extracts from comics and presents so vividly here are useful to novelists, sociologists, film makers, artists, roboticists -- anyone interested in human expression. That's probably you.

Indeed, even if you have no interest in comics at all, this charming book will win a place in your life because ultimately it is about communication and stories -- and those are the foundations of all cultures. Making Comics teaches you the visual elements of stories. If I had to re-title it, I would call this book Making Visual Stories.

Finally, as an example of communication itself, this comic book has few peers. I read, review and use hundreds of how-to books every year. I can't think of any instructional manual in any subject that is clearer, more thorough, more honest, more user friendly than Making Comics.

As I said, it's a classic. You can expect to find marked-up copies on bookshelves (or on hard drives) a hundred years from now.

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Sierra Stove

There I was, in driving rain, cooking breakfast under a tree over an intense, portable fire. Fresh coffee and scrambled eggs.

It was a Sierra Stove I got for $52. It's a mini-forge, forcing air into a small insulated chamber where a double handful of twigs (or dung or whatever) can heat water in a couple minutes---just a little longer than a butane stove, but with NO fuel or fuel containers to carry. One enthusiast hiked from Mexico to Canada cooking with one, claims Chip in The Compleat Walker IV. Chip himself now claims to camp largely solar--with backback solar charged batteries running his flashlights and his Sierra Stove.

The basic unit I got weighs 18 ounces and is clever and well-evolved. Accessory goodies can be found at the manufacturer's site. The newest item is a titanium version that weighs only 10 ounces, for $129.

I was impressed at how little fuel was needed, and how funky it could be. A switch offers high or low speed on the fan, driven by one AA battery. No igniter -- my Bic failed me in the rain, but a Lifeboat match and lil' firestarter saved the day. Unlike butane, the Sierra Stove does blacken your pots and pans, which is the main nuisance -- they go in Ziploc bags anyway though. All in all an impressive little rig.

We'll all want one when the economy collapses completely and we have to live homeless.


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