Saturday, May 30, 2015

A long, rambling sort of review of Cool Tools (book and website)

This is going to be different than probably any review you've ever read, if it's even a review at all.  It actually starts in the mid-70s.  Seriously.

As a teenager, I was a serious misfit.  These days, kids like I was then show up at school with a gun and pockets full of ammo because some idiot shrink thought it would be a great idea to pump them full of psychotropic drugs.  In the 70s, we had to figure out how to fit in, make some friends and all that other stuff without the benefit of drugs (well, legal ones, at least).

My problems were that I was way smarter than most kids, wore glasses, and while I was a competent athlete I wasn't interested in being one.  Couple that with living on the wrong side of town, social awkwardness that verged on Aspergers and a total lack of clue what to do about any of it, and I was one miserable wet puppy.

So where does a nerdly, pretty much friendless dork like me spend his spare time?  Yep, the public library.  That's me, taking it to new heights of misfitness.  About the only thing I didn't do was wear stripes with checks.

In the library, I was a voracious reader.  I was fast and had good comprehension to boot.  It was nothing for me to go through several hundred pages a day.  Why not--it isn't like I had a social life.  So I immersed myself in books.  If it interested me, I read everything our middling small city's library had to offer on the subject.

One day I ran across something new--The Whole Earth Catalog.  And what a catalog it was.  "access to tools" it said on the cover, and they weren't kidding.  They covered the tools most people thought of tools, like hammers, saws and such, but also tools for you mind, tools for working with information, tools for building communities--tools for just about anything you could think of and a shitload of things I'd never thought of or heard about.

This led me to a lot more reading as I could find the books the referenced.  My outlook on the world changed, changed and changed again.  I actually made a couple of friends because of what I was reading.  I learned how I could relate to the world, and why I should.  It isn't a stretch at all to say that the Whole Earth Catalog changed my life in some ways.

Not that I agreed with all of it, and I still don't.  The political outlook of many of the people who worked on the catalog is not mine, but that's OK.  These people seemed laid back enough that, if we met in person, I think we could have agreed to disagree and do so amicably.  I took what I needed, what I wanted, and left the rest.  I wasn't harmed by being exposed to Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" for example, instead I knew what I was seeing when I saw it used.  Better yet, I knew just how to fight back--yes, the Catalog had a book that covered that as well.

At any rate, over the years the things I had been exposed to kept coming back to me, affecting my path through life in ways that I only now can look back and see clearly.  The Catalog wasn't the only book that did that; there were many.  But it is the one that stands out in my mind.  It's one of the ones that still sits on the bookshelves behind me now.  And I still pick it up once and a while and page through it, and that 40 year old book still has things to show me.

You need to know all that backstory so you will know why I am so enthusiastic about finding Cool Tools.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast and there is an interview with Kevin Kelly.  The name felt familiar but I couldn't place it.  Then, as they're going over his background, his connection with the Whole Earth Catalog comes out, I kind of freak out and pause the podcast.  I want to be able to listen to this with my full attention, not as semi-background noise while driving to work.  I'm glad I did.

Besides all the other stuff you get from listening, you find out that Kevin Kelly and some other like-minded folks run a web site, Cool Tools.  I've linked as a blog, seeing as how there's fresh content there more often than I manage it here these days.  (There's lots more over there; you should explore.  Kelly is an interesting guy.)

The idea behind Cool Tools is simple, and I'll quote it here.

Cool tools really work. A cool tool can be any book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is tried and true. All reviews on this site are written by readers who have actually used the tool and others like it. Items can be either old or new as long as they are wonderful. We only post things we like and ignore the rest. Suggestions for tools much better than what is recommended here are always wanted.

There is somewhat more to it than that, and Kelly goes into it in the Freakonomics interview.  Cool Tools wants interviews not just from someone who really likes this particular hammer, but who has used many hammers, who is familiar with hammers and knows what makes a hammer good or bad.  Someone who is not necessarily an expert in the hammer field, but someone who knows more about hammers than the average person.

This makes for an eclectic site, with interviews ranging from apps for your iPhone to clothing.  Since finding it, before making a purchase of something that I'm unfamiliar with, such as a recently purchased OBD2 code scanner, I check Cool Tools to see if there is any advice to be had.  It's already influenced several purchases.

The reviews are short, well written (well edited, perhaps?) and to the point.  All have pictures, some have video and even the ones for things I have no interest in (Transformer Pencil Case, anyone?) are still an interesting read.  Each will come with related reviews at the bottom of the page which can lead you to other products that might fit your current need or kindle a new need.  All reviews come with a link to a source for the Cool Tool in question.

The site has other useful features.  One is "Ask Cool Tools", which is exactly what it sounds like--a place where the reader can ask for a suggestion for a tool and have other readers offer suggestions.

Another is "The Daily Rule of Thumb".  Every day, you get a new rule of thumb on some subject.  It may or may not be useful, but it's always interesting.

There is also a link on the site where you may purchase the other subject of this review, the book "Cool Tools:  A Catalog of Possibilities".  Yes, after listening to the interview, I bought a copy.  For me, it was like a walk down an old familiar path that I hadn't walked in many years.  The trees are bigger, and I don't remember that rock, but it is definitely an homage to The Whole Earth Catalog.  The organization is different, and some subjects are handled far differently (for example, there were no personal computers when the original Whole Earth was published), but it has that familiar feel to it.  I didn't read it cover to cover, but I did read the majority of it, and no page was left without something on it being read.

Yes, as a book, it was obsolete before it was published, but that isn't the point.  The point of this book is to open your eyes and your mind to the things that these tools make possible.  What could you do with a hammer that is less fatiguing to use?  Would the knowledge from this book on organizational dynamics make you more effective at work and maybe get you that promotion you've been wanting?  Did you know that there was a tool that allowed you to repair broken tool handles permanently with bailing wire--no spit required?

Kelly recommends that you give a copy of this book to kids in your life.  I heartily agree with that suggestion.  I hope it bends their minds as much as the original bent mine.  But don't forget to get yourself a copy as well.