Some call Miyazaki's Nausicaa the greatest graphic novel ever


Some call this the greatest graphic novel ever. I tend to agree. Written and drawn by a young Hayao Miyazaki between 1982 and 1994, his final Japanese manga reached 1,100 pages. The current English translation consists of an oversized 2-volume hardcover boxed set (or a smaller format 7 volume paperback set). The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic earth and is rife with concern for the environment as well as feral fantasy creatures. Miyazaki would later animate it into his first feature length film by the same name. The obsessive detail in each drawing sucks you into a complete immersion into his world. Like all Miyazaki creations, it is lyrical, uplifting yet slightly dark, with villains who have redeeming qualities, and vice versa. It’s suitable for young adults.

Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind Vol. 1 by Hayao Miyazaki VIZ Media 2004, 136 pages, 7.1 x 10.1 x 0.5 inches (paperback) $9 Buy one on Amazon

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40 Days in the Desert - timeless, eternal mythical tale by Moebius

When you are trying to imagine the details of an alternative world, try Moebius. Moebius (one of the pseudonyms for the French artist Jean Giraud) practically invented the now-common idea of a well worn future – that place far ahead that is gritty, patched up, organic, and old and new at the same time. Think Star Wars, cyberpunk, Blade Runner. Moebius is a fabulist. His strange drawings, designs and comics have shaped movies such as The Fifth Element and Alien, and influenced directors such as Fellini and Miyazaki. Moebius was a prolific artist, starring in his own series Heavy Metal, and appeared in many other publications, yet little of his work remains in print in English. Out of all Moebius’ (Giraud’s) work, I suggest this book, 40 Days in the Desert. Long out of print, and rare even when first published, this is an extended visual poem. The version of the book that I have is Japanese, but that is okay because there are no words in this story. It is timeless and eternal and other-worldly. With thin sure lines, this wordless sequence tells a mythical story in some alien place. There are about 100 drawings depicting surreal worlds with an ominous tension. Something is about to happen, or just happened, but you are not sure what. All you know is that you have never seen anything like this, and that maybe it is true. It makes me want to unleash my imagination.

40 Days in the Desert by Moebius Asukashin-Sha 2009, 152 pages, 6.5 x 10.5 x 0.8 inches $49 Buy one on Amazon Read the rest

This small intelligent orb guesses what object you are thinking of in 20 questions


This tennis ball-size orb knows what you are thinking. Most of the time it will guess what you have in mind after asking you twenty yes/no questions. It is eerily smart, and slightly addictive. The toy is remarkable. Because it is so small, so autonomous, its intelligence is shocking to the unprepared. Most children can’t stump it, and if you stick to objects it will stump smart adults about 80% of the time with 20 questions and most of the time with an additional 5 questions. I love to watch people’s reactions when they think of a “hard” thing, and after a seemingly irrational set of questions you are convinced are dumb, the sly ball tells you what you had in mind. (For instance, it can correctly guess “flying squirrel” without asking “does it fly?”) People who play chess machines won’t be surprised, but just about everyone else will be tickled. It feels like the future. But right now, for fourteen bucks, you can get an amazing little artificial intelligence, about as smart as an insect — but an insect which specializes in guessing what object you are thinking of. And in that part of the brain, it’s smarter than you are.

See more photos at Wink Fun.

20Q Deluxe by Techno Source Ages 7 and up $14 Buy a copy on Amazon This link is for 20Q Deluxe, a newer version from the photos above Read the rest

Build curvy, complicated, organic structures with ZOOB


Most of the really great construction sets are rectangular in shape, or they obey rigid angles. Lego, Kapla Blocks, Kinnex, or Zomeworks are fabulous kits that foster open-ended creativity. But they all tend toward very rectilinear structures. ZOOB is the first construction set I’ve seen that encourages organic, free-flowing builds. There are five basic ZOOB shapes centered on a ball-and-socket connection. When you click them together you have full 180-degree freedom in how the connection is oriented, leading to creations that are curvy, complicated, or ones that repeat like vertebrate in a spine, or carbons on a chain, or even amino acids on DNA. I was surprised by how sophisticated you could make the forms; you may need a bit of patience to get complex ones to fit perfectly (note to 8-year olds). In fact the force and precision needed to assemble pieces may be beyond toddlers, but school kids should have no problem. The plastic pieces are largish, unlike lego, so the finished forms can be quite hefty.

ZOOB Ages 6 and up, 125 pieces $20 Buy a copy on Amazon

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Set – a pattern recognition competition


Set is a simple card game in a class by itself. You get a deck of cards with colored symbols. These are laid out, face up. To play the game you need to organize the symbols into sets of three “un-alikes” — but they can be grouped in more ways than one. Many more ways. Everyone else is trying to group them into sets faster than you. This game exercises a unique part of your brain that few other activities do. Half math, half intuition, all concentration. It’s fun, loud, fast moving, and very challenging to do well, yet easy enough for small kids to join in.

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Stream Machine water cannon - high pressure fun


The genius of these Stream Machine water cannons is their simplicity. A single moving part — a big fat piston with handle grip — squeezes a wide stream of water down and out their large diameter tubes. Filling them you reverse, sucking in water via the same orifice. When loaded (takes about 2 seconds) they gush water at least 30 feet. Impossible to clog, and nearly unbreakable, both kids and adults can operate them around pools, lakes, rafts, canoes and boats. These are the regulation-issued weapons at our place.

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Brock Magiscope is a rugged microscope for everyday use

The trouble with most optical equipment is that it won’t get used unless it is out of the case, opened up, and powered on. But if it is opened and lying around, it will get highly abused. I buy my cameras, spectacles, binocs, etc. assuming that they’ll be dropped and splattered, and they should hold up to this misuse. But until now I haven’t been able to find a microscope strong enough to do its job yet sturdy enough to be left on the kitchen table ready for inspections by toddlers and teenagers.

Now after several years of looking for an everyday microscope suitable for a busy family I found one: The Brock Magiscope #70 is exactly what I had wanted. It has a single-moving part that my 5-year-old son could handle. He could put a leaf in and focus it right. Rubber bands hold the slide. For light the scope uses a fat fiber optic bent pipe which channels ambient room light to the underside of the objective lens (no electricity). There is no fussing, no adjustments. The viewing field is amazingly bright and clear, good enough for high school work.

or smart phone to its eyepiece, and get pretty good microphotography shots. And best of all it is practically indestructible. The thing is simple and rugged as a hammer. In fact, it was built for the abuse of K-12 classrooms, which is probably as grating as a war. I know one educational sailing company that keeps several on its boat – probably the most challenging environment anywhere for optics. Read the rest

Fun with el-wire - flexible portable DIY neon

Do-it-yourself neon. This thin electroluminescent wire (el-wire) glows very brightly. You can bend it easily and tie it to anything. It produces essentially no heat. Best of all it runs on batteries, meaning you can wear it or use it on your bicycle. We make signs with it and, of course, some wild costumes. El-wire (also called Live Wire) has been used to great effect in the night at parades at Burning Man. It comes in various lengths from .5 m to 10 m (you can cut it if you know what you are doing) and in eight colors. You can make it strobe. The coolest thing to do is weave it. It is the world’s most flexible light. It is very cool stuff.

Get a starter kit on Amazon for $19

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Old Kathmandu – what was lost

As you can see from these photographs I took in 1976, the medieval town is delicate. Not all has been destroyed, and I am sure the Nepalis will rebuild as they have in the past. Still, the earthquake shook more than just buildings.

Artist Andy Goldsworthy builds amazing arrangements from leaves, twigs, flowers, icicles and dirt

I’m a big fan of the nature artist Andy Goldsworthy. In his art he only uses found natural materials: leaves, twigs, flowers, icicles, dirt. From these natural bits he builds amazing temporary arrangements outdoors in the natural settings he finds the material. He photographs their brief existence as a new order and then lets the elements unravel them. For a moment, his fanciful designs capture some invisible spirit that is both completely wild and completely Andy Goldsworthy. Once you see one of his natural sculptures, they seem to be inevitable. A rainbow row of leaves sorted by color. Of course! You can’t forget them. Again and again he seems to summon archetypes – an icicle arch – that ought to occur in the wild. But we don’t see them until he unveils them. Goldsworthy is a prolific maker, with many books of his stunning works. If I had to select only one volume, I think his Collaboration with Nature has the best summary of his early work (up to 1990). I take these as visual poems. If they ring a bell in you, proceed to his later work.

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The photos in Earth is My Witness are like bullets

Earth is My Witness is a classic coffee table book. Huge, weighty, colorful, and visually pleasing to almost everyone. Read the rest

Habibi, a strange, beautiful graphic novel

There is no way around it. Habibi is a strange graphic novel. Not strange as in surreal, or ugly, or weird, but strange as in stranger, different. It is beautifully drawn. The writing is poetic. But the story is… odd. It takes place in an indefinite time in a place where Islam and Christianity meet. It wrestles with myth, status, slavery, love and transcendence.There’s horrific sin and redeeming grace. There’s an exotic multi-generational saga. It also serves a tutorial on how arabic calligraphy works. See, strange like that. This big fat book is a true work of art.

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Cartoonist Roz Chast talks about death and dying

Roz Chast draws a comic about her parents getting old and dying. Sometimes her account is funny, sometimes it’s poignant; always it’s memorable, even though her parent’s life and death were ordinary in most respects. Read the rest

An intense barrage of images from modern Shanghai

Shanghai Blink. No words, no captions, no white space. Only an intense barrage of images from modern Shanghai, in endless variation. Read the rest

Art Out of Time – Strange and now-forgotten cartoonists

When comics in newspapers (“funnies”) were first invented in the 1900s, a thousand crazy ideas were tried in every local newspaper in the country. Most of these local attempts at this new media were awful, but many of these earliest comic strips and later comic books were truly innovative, original, and bizarre.

There was nothing like them before – or since. Even the underground comix in the 1970s were not as strange and unusual as these now-forgotten visionaries. Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969 presents a sampling of overlooked fantastic and fantastical comics harvested from small town papers, yellowing zines, and short-lived strips. Like many other types of first-attempts, there is still much to be learned from these odd pioneers.

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Images of nearly extinct tribal dress, customs and celebrations in Africa

One of my favorite books for reference and inspiration remains the two-volume visual feast entitled African Ceremonies. But it is huge and expensive. Faces of Africa is smaller one-volume digest version by the same two photographers delivers much of the impact in a more affordable package. Read the rest

A work of art that reproduces 100 woodblock prints of Edo by artist Hiroshige

Without question, Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo is the bookiest book I own. It is a museum-quality artifact, which in a few more years will cease to be made, or at least made affordably. It is a work of art that reproduces the famous 100 Japanese woodblock prints that the artist Hiroshige created of Edo. Read the rest

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