Thursday, December 5, 2019

Non-Clutter Gifts: Art Supplies for Kids

Crayola crayons - box of 120 colors

I’ve always liked the idea of giving art supplies as gifts. They’re consumables, so they don’t tend to become clutter (unless a parent believes they must keep everything their child creates) and they encourage the creativity of children who have an artistic inclination.

But there’s one aspect of art supply gifts I never thought too much about until I read this on Twitter:
PSA: If you’re doing shopping for artsy kids this holiday season, avoid these art sets. Every artist I know got these as a kid and LOATHED them, because the quality sucks. Instead, find out what medium the kid likes and get nice versions of that specific thing. —Adam Ellis 
When Adam says “these art sets” he’s referring to the all-in-one kits, selling for around $25, that come with crayons, colored pencils, a pencil sharpener, scissors, watercolor cakes, oil pastels, markers, etc. He went on to suggest better gifts, and a lot of people joined the conversation. Some points made:
  • The gift-giver’s budget obviously needs to be taken into consideration. But to meet budget constraints, you can consider getting a smaller quantity of higher-quality stuff. 
  • The age, interest level, and skill level of the child matter; not all kids will appreciate the higher-quality items. The boxed sets can be fine for a kid who would just like to try different mediums: watercolors, colored pencils, markers, etc. But kids in their teens might really appreciate some better supplies. 
  • Even Crayola crayons are a step up in quality from many of the kits. (Lots of people mentioned Crayola products as a good alternative!) You can get better quality than the kits without going to top of the line. (Dried markers were a top complaint about the kits.)

But if you have a child on your gift list who is really into art, some suggested gifts from Adam and others were:

boxes of Prismacolor colored pencils

Colored pencils

Favorites included Prismacolor, Caran d'Arche and Faber Castell. Over on Dick Blick I saw a tin of 12 Prismacolors for $7.10 (well below list price) — and I also saw a set of 160 Caran d'Ache pencils in a wood box for $463.99. Obviously there are plenty of choices between these two price points.

Author Ann Leckie made a great case for good colored pencils:
I’ve been looking for the tweet I saw where someone said basically that low quality art supplies can make you feel like you can’t do the thing, because this is very true. Particularly colored pencils, which, by and large the cheap ones are just disappointing and frustrating. ... Speaking as someone who has recently been taking art classes—the difference between cheap colored pencils and good ones is AMAZING.

box of 10 tubes of Van Gogh brand watercolors


Adam mentioned Winsor & Newton watercolors but noted they are expensive — and that there are cheaper options that are perfectly fine. Other folks mentioned Daniel Smith and Van Gogh. The picture above is the 10-tube Van Gogh set.

And here’s someone making the case for good watercolors:
Decent watercolors were a game changer for me. I hated those little pan sets that they gave us in school. They made me furious at their badness. Turns out I love painting. I hate bad paint. 
I am so on team Give Kids Good Art Supplies.

six Micron pens in various sizes

Pens for Ink Drawings

Adam mentioned Microns (and Copic Multiliners as a huge upgrade). Someone else prefers the Artline Drawing System. This set of six Microns lists for $17.99 and can be found for much less.

SL Huang makes the case for good supplies, including these pens:
Since art supplies ARE so expensive, if you *can* get the Very Artsy kid in your life something specific & high-quality they’d prob be over the moon. I know I lusted after SO MANY art supplies I couldn’t afford as a kid & was always thrilllllled when ppl gifted them to me

Also, many times, a truly arty kid would be much more excited with 5 microns for the same price as this big crappy set.

Flax Art & Deisgn gift card

Gift Cards

If there's a good art supply store close to where the child lives, a gift card could be a great option, too. (Flax is a store in San Francisco that I’ve enjoyed for gift-buying.)

Sunday, December 1, 2019

8 Charging Stations for Your Phones, Tablets and More

wall-mounted charging station, looks like a box with charging items laying on the top

Everything in my life needs charging. —Francine Hardaway

If you’re like Francine, I’ve got some interesting products for you! (Note: For this post, I’m excluding wireless charging products.)

The item above is the Charge-Box from Konstantin Slawinski, which comes in a variety of colors. It can be wall-mounted, as shown, or it can sit on a flat surface such as a countertop or desktop. You can also find it at Connox (with fewer color choices), but if you’re in the U.S. the shipping charges are going to be quite high from either site.

wood shelf with slot in the rear, where a tablet is resting

The Stage shelf from Spell lets you charge up to five items and keep the cords hidden. There are four options: walnut, oak, white, and black. It’s lovely, but expensive.

wood shelf pulled out from the wall showing the interior with two products charging inside

The items being charged could be kept inside or out.

charging station that has slots for the seven items being charged

When it comes to charging stations that arent wall-mounted, there are a few basic designs. This 7-slot one from Satechi was recommended by iMore, which notes that “each slot is large enough to accommodate even the largest of smartphones and any cases that you may have installed.” It’s also available in white.

Note that the charging cables do not come with it, though, so it won’t look as cool as it does in this photo unless you buy the cables, too.

charging station with slots for products; the charging cables attach to the side of a mushroom-shaped outlet

For a very different take on the same basic design, there’s the charging mushroom. The mushroom also serves as a night light!

charging station, box-like, where cords are kept inside and products rest on top or stand up against a rail

Other products, like the Sanctuary4 from Bluelounge, are designed to hide all the cords. As you might guess from the name, it has four USB ports. You can get the Sanctuary4 in either black or white.

charging station that's like a box with slats on top; three products (phones and tablets) are standing in the slats

Alldock provides another take on the hidden-cord charging station. It comes in two sizes: the medium which charges four items and the large which charges six. Products are available in black, white, bamboo, and walnut.

same box-like charging station as above with an attachment that holds an AirPod case

There are optional Apple Watch, AirPod, and FitBit mounts, too.

charging station with places for MacBook, iPad, iPhone, AirPod case, Apple Watch, Apple Pencil, and Apple TV remote

And here’s yet another design. NytLite makes cool charging stations designed specifically for all Apple products. The one I’m showing is the one that accommodates the most products, including the Apple TV remote (or a second iPhone).

woman sitting on a bed that has a bedside pocket that holds products being charged

You can also get a product designed for bedside charging. Z-charge provides three pockets on each side of the bed. There’s a larger pocket in the back, kept in place by that Velcro latch in the upper corner. Z-charge currently comes in four colors: white, black, chocolate brown and dove gray.

Friday, November 22, 2019

2020 Wall Calendars for Good Causes, Part 2

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust calendar for 2020, with a photo of elephants

As I mentioned in my prior calendar post, lots of folks still use paper calendars to keep track of their time. So I always enjoy sharing some that help support good work around the world.

The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust rescues orphaned baby elephants in Kenya. I first heard about the trust on Twitter from Yashar Ali; he’s a huge fan. And I just discovered that SWT has a 2020 calendar.

International Animal Rescue calendar for 2020, with a photo of orangutans

International Animal Rescue has an Orangutan Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre in Borneo, Indonesia — and IAR has a 2020 orangutan calendar.

Safe Harbor Lab Rescue calendar, with a photo of a lab on a big expanse of grass

Many rescue and shelter organizations focused on dogs and cats (and other domestic animals) have calendars, too. Many of those rescue organizations work with a particular breed, such as Safe Harbor Lab Rescue.

2020 First Responders & Rescue Animals calendar, with a photo of fire truck and firemen in full gear holding various small animals

I’m also seeing some cool pairings of people and animals. “First responders from all over the State of New Hampshire volunteered to pose for photos” with adoptable animals (as well as some which had already been adopted) from the Manchester Animal Shelter to create this 2020 calendar. Proceeds go to the shelter and to charities chosen by the first responders.

Minnesota Wild 2020 Canine Calendar, with a photo of player holding a dog

Members of the Minnesota Wild ice hockey team teamed up with Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue to create this 2020 calendar. “All net proceeds benefit the Minnesota Wild Foundation, Coco's Heart Dog Rescue, and Soldier’s 6 - a local non-profit that provides honorably discharged veterans and first responders who may suffer from PTSD with service animals.”

Seva 2020 calendar which says "see the change" and identifies Jon Kaplan as the photographer; photo is of a little girl
Not all charitable fundraising calendars are animal-focused, of course. Seva puts out a lovely calendar every year. (Seva “works with local communities around the world to develop self-sustaining programs that preserve and restore sight.”) You can get the 2020 calendar at the site for buyers in the USA or the one for buyers in Canada; the USA site has a number to call if you live elsewhere.

Kitchen Organizing: 11 Impressive Bread Boxes

Red bread box, made of steel, shaped like a ball

The best way to store your bread is on your counter or in a bread box at room temperature. Take care to keep your bread away from sunlight, heat, and high moisture levels, they can cause the bread to mold early. Yuck! — Dave’s Killer Bread

If you want to follow Dave’s advice, I’ve got some interesting bread boxes for you to consider. The one above is the Wesco Super Ball, made of powder-coated steel. It has air vents to help prevent moisture build-up, as many high-quality bread boxes do.

I first found it on Red Candy, but you can find it many other places, too. This won’t work for everyone — it will depend on the type of bread you buy (or bake), among other things — but it sure is eye-catching. It comes in eight colors; you don’t have to get it in red.

ceramic bread bin with lid sitting next to it, showing the grooved cutting board side of the lid

I found this ceramic Emile Henry bread box on the Food52 website. As Emile Henry explains, “The unglazed interior helps absorb moisture. The wooden lid, smooth on the top, is grooved on the cutting side for collecting crumbs when slicing bread.”

bread bin with lid sitting next to it, showing the cutting board interior surface

The Wesco Super Ball is made in Germany; the Emile Henry box is made in France. Now let’s move on to Italy; that’s where this bread bin from Legnoart originates. It’s made from wood fiber with an ash cutting board for the lid. (That’s the interior side of the lid in the photo.)

bread bin - orange with a row of brightly colored flowers, looking like something from the 1960s

OK, back to some color. This is a special edition of Brabantia’s roll-top bread bin; if you aren’t into this look, there are 10 much more standard options. It has ventilation in the base, and a flat top to something can be stored on that top. (via the Independent)

white bread bin, oval shaped, sort of a futuristic look

The Gnam bread bin from Alessi is made from thermoplastic resin and comes in black, white and orange. ( doesn’t have the orange version.)

blue bread bin covered with orange foxes

Because I’m always attracted to cute, you get to see the Mr Fox bread bin from Scion. It’s made from powder-coated steel with a bamboo lid. Warning: This photo is from John Lewis; other sites show it with a darker blue.

terra cotta bread pot, vertical orientation rather than horizontal. Original Suffolk Crock per wording on the crock itself.

Another very different option is the terracotta Henry Watson bread crock.

white bread bin with pattern of leaves

This bread bin from Davis & Waddell is made of bamboo.

bread bin with space underneath for a bread board (shown with bread on it)

While some bread boxes have cutting boards incorporated into their lids, Ella’s Kitchen provides a bread board that slides under the bread bin. You’ll note that this bread bin, like the Brabantia one, has a flat lid to allow items to be stored on top. It’s available in six colors — and for an extra charge you can get it in any color you specify.

walnut bread bin, open
walnut bread bin, closed

This stunning walnut bread bin from Manufactum was actually the one that inspired this post; Clara Jeffery pointed me to the gift guide that included it. The fold-down front lid, which can be easily removed, has a cutting board on the interior side.

red bread bin with hinged lid open

And finally, let’s end (as we began) with a red one. The Tempteva bread box is made of steel and has ventilation holes. It has non-slip feet and a lid that stays open when lifted.

And a word of caution: Bread boxes can take up a lot of counter space. Be sure to measure carefully before deciding on one! And if the bread box is going under some cabinets, make sure you’ve got enough clearance for the lid if you’re getting a lidded box.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Power Outages and Being Organized for Emergencies

map showing when various counties in California are expected to lose power

There’s nothing quite like a power outage — fortunately, with some warning — to test a portion of your emergency preparedness.

Earlier this month my part of the San Francisco Bay Area lost power for about 17 hours; power was cut to avoid fires caused by electric lines during dangerous weather conditions, including high winds. And now we’re scheduled to lose power again on Saturday evening, for what might be a longer time.

Most of my preparations for the last power outage were already in place, and I was pleased with how things worked. I had plenty of non-cook shelf-stable food. I put an LED battery-powered lamp in each of the rooms I would be using, and turned the lamps on and off as needed.

five flashlights - all the same except for different colors

I also had a really good flashlight — the Big Larry work light — that served me well. (I didn’t want to use the flashlight on my cell phone, since I was trying to conserve power.)

Both the lamp and the flashlight run on AA batteries, as does my NOAA weather alert radio; I’ve made sure that all my battery-powered items take the same battery, so I just have to stock up on one type.

large black cat on a quilt on a couch

The one thing I didn’t anticipate had to do with cat food. I have plenty of extra food on hand, but I was assuming my Moonshadow cat, who is on prescription food, would eat the kibble version rather than the canned food I usually give him. Wrong. He turned up his nose at the kibble he’s eaten before, so I wound up giving him the canned food. But those cans usually serve as four meals, and without refrigeration I had to throw them away after just one.

So I’ve now found out there’s a variation on the same canned food which comes in smaller cans — and he likes it. So now I have those smaller cans in stock, too, which will cause less waste.

I may find more things to tweak after this second round of power outages, but at least I feel fairly confident that nothing major is likely to go wrong.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

2020 Calendars for Good Causes

2020 International Calendar, with a cover photo from Madagascar showing children being ferried to school

Plenty of people still like paper calendars, so I thought I’d share some I’ve seen that benefit good causes. (Note: I haven’t vented these organizations, but on the surface they seem to be doing good work.)

This first one comes from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. You can read on the RPCV site about the good works that this calendar helps to fund.

cover of Bolded Retrieve Rescue of the Rockies 2020 calendar, showing a golden retriever with its head out of the car

But now, it’s on to animals. This one comes from Golden Retriever Rescue of the Rockies. The monthly interior photos all look adorable.

Celebrating Greyhounds 2020 calendar, with a photo of greyhound outdoors

And here’s a different breed, from Greyhound Friends of North Carolina.

Bords of the San Francisco Bay Area 2020 Calendar - cover showing a shorebird

But it’s not all dogs! This calendar comes from the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Cover of the 2020 Save the Manatees caledar, with a photo of two manatees

And here’s one from the Save the Manatee Club.

Cover of the 2020 Wildlife Calendar with a photo of an echidna

Moving on to organizations outside the U.S., here’s a calendar from WIRES — NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service in Australia.

cover of the Rocklily Wombars 2020 calendar, with a photo of two wombats

Another Australian calendar comes from Rocklily Wombats, which rescues and rehabilitates these animals.

cover of the Lothian Cat Rescue 2020 calendar, with a photo of a black and white cat

And moving over to the U.K., we have this calendar coming soon from Lothian Cat Rescue.

A lot of organizations don’t have their calendars available yet, so I may show you some more later in the year.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Recycling in Today's World

blue recycling bin full of stuff, with pictures next to it of acceptable items: glass bottles, plastic bottles, etc.

My clients are trying to be environmentally conscious citizens, keeping things out of landfill when possible. So they do a lot of recycling — which is easy where we live, with curbside pickups every week or two, depending on the city.

But now, as you have likely read, there’s less of a market for many recyclables since China stopped accepting many kinds of recyclable waste back in 2017. This is affecting local recycling companies as they need to find other buyers for their recyclables, although the reports as to how drastic the impact has been vary quite a bit.

Given this situation, what can an environmentally conscious person do?

1. Know and follow your local recycling rules.

In The Atlantic, Alana Semuels does a nice job of capturing common attitudes to recycling:
About 25 percent of what ends up in the blue bins is contaminated, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. For decades, we’ve been throwing just about whatever we wanted — wire hangers and pizza boxes and ketchup bottles and yogurt containers — into the bin and sending it to China, where low-paid workers sorted through it and cleaned it up. That’s no longer an option. ...

Americans tend to be “aspirational” about their recycling. ... Even in San Francisco, Reed kept pointing out items that aren’t easily recyclable but that keep showing up at the Recology plant: soy-sauce packets and pizza boxes, candy-bar wrappers and dry-cleaner bags, the lids of to-go coffee cups and plastic take-out containers.  
Note: Reed is Robert Reed of the recycling company Recology.
George Skelton captured the same problem in an article in the Los Angeles Times:
“People are engaged in wish recycling,” says Mark Oldfield, public affairs director at CalRecycle, which runs the state’s recycling program. “They think: ‘This should be recycled. I’m going to put it in the bin.’”

“It’s amazing what people put in recycling bins,” Oldfield continues. “Dirty diapers. Broken crockery. Old garden hoses.”

The recycling rules in my city are different from those of another city just three miles away, so be sure you know the rules where you live. Ignoring the rules can cause two problems:

1. Bales being bundled for resale can become contaminated, so items sell for less or not at all. That’s the reason some recycling facilities tell you to clean your food bottles; they don’t want any bits of food to get onto the paper that’s in the same recycling bin.

2. Items such as plastic bags and clothes hangers can gum up the machinery used in the recycling facility.

2. Replace hard (or impossible) to recycle items with ones that can easily be recycled.

Here's an example from the hotel world. If you collect those little bottles of shampoo and such from hotels (and then perhaps have them sit around your house, unused, for years), you will soon be out of luck at many hotels. As Dee-Ann Durbin reported for Associated Press just this week:
Marriott International, the world's largest hotel chain, said Wednesday it will eliminate small plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner and bath gel from its hotel rooms worldwide by December 2020. They'll be replaced with larger bottles or wall-mounted dispensers, depending on the hotel.

The move follows a similar announcement last month by IHG, which owns Holiday Inn, Kimpton and other brands. ...

Marriott has wanted to get rid of small bottles for years, President and CEO Arne Sorenson said. There are just too many of them, he said, and they're difficult to recycle because of the time it takes to clean them out. But it took a lot of work to design tamper-resistant large bottles and get suppliers on board.

The larger bottles will still be plastic, and Marriott still plans to replace them — not just refill them — when they run low. But Naguib said the larger bottles are easier to recycle than smaller ones.

3. Focus on the “reduce” and “reuse” parts of that “reduce, reuse, recycle” refrain.

Here are a couple examples:
  • Recology was asked how you recycle wire hangers, and its reply was: “You don’t. You take them back next time you go to the dry cleaners. That’s reuse which is even better than recycling.”

  • When feasible, choose items with minimal packaging rather than the over-packaged things we often see. 
That “reduce” focus is also getting some support from government and business, as the following stories illustrate:

I’ve been carrying my own water bottle around rather than buying bottled water for quite a while. The one exception I sometimes made was buying bottled water at the airport the few times a year that I fly. But now San Francisco airport has banned the sale of plastic water bottles, so it seems I’ll be carrying a bottle onto the plane, too. (Fortunately, the airport has plentiful “hydration stations” for refilling those water bottles.) So good for them for making me do the right thing.

Similarly, Hilton is removing plastic water bottles from meetings and event spaces in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific. (Why not the U.S.? I don’t know!)

Photo credit: Recology brochure

Friday, June 14, 2019

Reading Time is Limited. It's Fine to Give Up on a Book.

Photo by Petras Gagilas, found on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I’ve been in my current book club for years now, and I appreciate how it’s gotten me to read some wonderful books I would never have found on my own. But there have also been books that just don’t appeal to me. Some I know about right away. For example, I don’t like magical realism so I’m not even going to try to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, no matter how well-respected it is.

But others I begin and then give up on. In one case, the book centered around two people, the author and her best friend, and I didn’t like either of them. In another case I intensely disliked the author’s writing style. (As I wrote to a friend, “He seems to be a fan of very long sentences.”) While everyone else in the book club keeps going, even when they aren’t enjoying the book, I have no hesitation in just setting the book aside.

Reporter Mike Isaac captured (in a now-deleted tweet) the reason most people give up on books:
i also used to do this thing where id power through books that i wasnt enjoying because i felt bad quitting 
then in my twenties someone said to me “life is too short to spend your time reading shitty books” and i feel guilt-free ditching stuff i dont enjoy
Want more encouragement? I recently read a piece where author Nick Hornby goes over what he’s been reading lately, and the list starts like this:
✭ [Unnameable Novel 1] (abandoned)
✭ [Unnameable Novel 2] (abandoned)
Little—Edward Carey
Hornby goes on to explain those first two entries, making an argument I haven’t seen before:
Why give books up? Why not plough on until the bitter end? Because, young friends, we want to do everything we can to break the link between literature and grim duty. You wouldn’t stick with a long Spotify playlist consisting of music that displeases you; you wouldn’t wade through a Netflix series you were hating. Do reading a favor and treat it as if it were just like everything else you enjoy. You’re doing it in your leisure time. You don’t have enough of that.
So feel free to join Mike, Nick and me in abandoning books that you aren’t enjoying!

Related Posts:
Book Lovers: Stop Reading Books You Don't Like
It's OK to Give Up on a Book
Not Every Book is Worth Finishing
Don't Spend Time on Books You Don't Enjoy

Friday, May 10, 2019

In Honor of My Mom: Organizing in Blue for 2019

Three blue flat baskets

Twelve years ago today, my mom died of pancreatic cancer. Her favorite color was blue, so this is my annual tribute to her.

These blue felt baskets come from Orval Créations and are sold by FUTUR Conceptstore in Belgium. The online store didn’t mention the dimensions, but Joke Vermeire at the store was kind enough to go measure them for me:
  • Small: 34 x 19 x 23 cm (13.4 x 7.5 x 9.0 inches)
  • Medium: 39 x 23 x 28 cm (15.4 x 9.0 x 11.0 inches)
  • Large: 43 x 28 x 33 cm (16.9 x 11.0 x 13.0 inches)
And yes, they do nest within each other.

light blue small felt basket with leather ties

For more containers, let’s head over to Etsy. This little wool felt basket from Skandinavious is made of pure Merino wool and has leather ties.

blue herringbone pattern little storage bin

StitchOSaurus makes this little storage bin (and all its products) from old floor samples that would otherwise be trashed — very cool! Because of this, most of the products are one of a kind. If this one is gone when you look, perhaps the store could make a similar one with another fabric.

two small storage basket with blue feather pattern on the outside; one has makeup brushes in it

These small storage baskets come from Sew&Tell. (Note: The store has the same basket in another fabric that would be nice for dog lovers.)

hourglass, half blue and half clear, with blue sand

Moving beyond containers: This hourglass serves as a 15-minute timer.

blue magnet shaped like the state of Michigan, with a heart where Ann Arbor would be
blue magnet that says Hail to the Victors

And as someone who went to the University of Michigan, I was delighted to find that Roeda makes these magnets. They have nice magnets for other schools, too. (Mom didn’t go to U of M, but she did live in Michigan for many years.)

Curious about my posts in prior years? Take a look at all of them.