Cool Tools


Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation Duo: All day charger for mobile gadgets

I bought this USB charging unit because I have a lousy sense of direction. I get lost in buildings and in cities, even ones I’m familiar with. My iPhone’s GPS map is a godsend. I use it when I’m driving, walking, and taking public transportation.

When I was in Tokyo in June, I brought along a small Android phone installed with a local data SIM card. I used the phone as a wireless hotspot for my iPhone, and appreciated having access to the online map to guide me from my hotel to the subway station, and to attractions like the Tsukiji fish market and Kabuki-Cho. It was also nice to call home using Skype, and to post Instagram photos. The only problem was that the batteries on the Android phone and iPhone drained after a few hours, forcing me to ask people, chikatetsu wa doko desu ka? in badly-accented Japanese, to find the nearest subway station.

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Skooba Laptop Weekender Travel Bag - a carry-on bag for gadget lovers

I go somewhere on a plane at least twice a month. For over ten years I’ve used a Briggs & Riley roller carry-on, and I’ve been fairly happy with it. It’s heavy for its small size and the zipper pulls all broke off (I made replacements from binder clips and Sugru) so I’ve been keeping my eye out for a replacement. After hearing great things about the accessibility and capacity of the Skooba Weekender duffle, I decided to give it a try. It turned out the be the most convenient carry-on I’ve ever used.

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Poison oak and poison ivy skin barrier: Invisible Glove

I am horrifically allergic to poison oak. I am also an avid mountain biker in northern California. This not a good combination. I have tried all the soaps and wipes, but none of them really help, especially if you are out all day and can’t get to a shower soon after exposure.

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Recycled surgical towels are awesome

Huck towels are durable low-lint cotton towels canonically used for wiping down surgical instruments after sterilization, but they are useful for many other tasks where a clean strong towel is optimal. They are praised by window-washers, auto detailers, and professional housecleaners, and they are very popular in my household.

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The Love Glove

With three cats in the house, fur gets all over our furniture and clothes. I didn’t want to make a dozen Monkey Couch Guardians, so I bought a Love Glove to attack the problem at its source – on the cats.

The Love Glove looks like an oven mitt. The palm side is covered with rubber nubs. To use it, you simply pet your cat. The loose fur comes off and sticks to the glove. It’s easy to peel off. My cats go into throes of ecstasy when I use the Love Glove on them. They even get excited just seeing me approach them with the glove on my hand.

I have collected a lot of fur so far. My younger daughter is saving it because she to make the projects in Crafting with Cat Hair: Cute Handicrafts to Make with Your Cat. -- Mark

Love Glove Grooming Mitt for Cats $6

How to Win a Fight - A guide to avoiding and surviving violence

This book could be titled “How and Why You Should Do Everything Possible to Avoid Getting Into a Fight.” The authors (both martial artists who’ve been around the block a few times and have the scars to show it) spend a good number of pages explaining why fighting is always terrible idea — even if you manage to win, you end up losing (your attacker’s relatives could sue you or seek revenge, you could go to prison, and for the rest of your life you could carry the knowledge of having crippled or maimed another person).

The authors also go into detail explaining how to recognize the first signs of a situation that could escalate into a fight and what to do. Only after they’ve convinced you to avoid a fight do they get to the section about effective ways of defending yourself.

The final third of the book deals with the often unconsidered aftermath of a fight: administering first aid and what to do to stay out of jail. -- Mark Frauenfelder

How to Win a Fight

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Dogbone Wrench - handier than a socket set

I’ve used it three years. Keep it in my desk and use it much more frequently than my socket set. I always have the right size wrench handy in a single tool, and it rotates, so it functions more like a socket than a crescent wrench.

Design has been around for years. I own the newer Black & Decker model, but Craftsman makes one too. -- Elon Schoenholz

Black & Decker MSW100 Ready Wrench $26

The best way to start a charcoal barbecue

No need to buy charcoal lighter fluid (or “boy scout water” as they call it in my home state of Colorado) or self-starting charcoal briquets. Just put two crumpled sheets of newspaper in the bottom chamber of this metal chimney and add briquets (I buy the large bags at Trader Joe’s for $7 each) to the top. Light the newspaper with a match and go back into the kitchen to prepare food for grilling. In 20 minutes the briquets will be cherry red and ready to use. Once you use this you’ll wonder how you grilled without it. Take a look at the insanely happy Amazon reviews (4.9 star average with over 800 reviews.) - Mark Frauenfelder

Weber Rapidfire Chimney Charcoal Starter $15

Rugged tiny USB flash drive fits on a key ring

I cannot say enough about this key-shaped USB flash drive. The first model I purchased I owned for several years. It was only 2GB and I still have it on my keychain, alongside my new 32GB model that I picked up for $35. I use them almost every day. They stay on my keychain, and it means I always have storage space with me as well as pertinent documents I might need, such as the latest copy of my resume, and an ebb-and-flow selection of images from my portfolio.

It is indispensable in my daily activities. I use it to bring home work and exchange music with friends. I even use it in my car to play my MP3s through my usb port thats connected to my stereo. It’s a large amount of space in a small package that’s gone through the wash a few times and still works. I’m still surprised when I hand it to people to transfer files to and they have never seen one. -- Matthew A. Walker

32 GB LaCie PetiteKey USB flash drive $35

Fun backyard fort building kit for kids: Fort Magic

My 10-year-old daughter and her friends love playing with the Fort Magic kit. It’s a box of PVC pipes and connecters, along with clips to attach sheets or tarps. You can build all sorts of things with them, from dangerous blow guns (we use cotton balls and tape with a big needle) to clubhouses. See Fort Magic’s YouTube channel for other projects. We’ve had Fort Magic for a over a year and Jane has not yet become bored with it.

Here’s a video of Jane and her cousins showing me one of their creations. -- Mark

Fort Magic $200

Cuttlebug: Inexpensive embosser and die cutter for crafters

The Cuttlebug is a non-electronic die-cutting and embossing tool for paper crafts. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and able to use embossing folders and dies from most manufacturers. I am an avid papercrafter and scrapbooker, make all my own greeting cards, and I use my ‘bug more than any other tool.

YouTube shows lots of ways to use it for various techniques, including letterpress. I’ve had mine for about 10-12 years, use it at least weekly, and am still using the same cutting plates it came with. It’s more intuitive to use, more compact when folded up than competing brands I’ve tried and works just as well. Dies and embossing folders are available in any craft store, but you can also create your own embossing designs with leaves, lace, etc. using rubber mats made by the Spellbinder and Scor-Pal companies. -- Polly Robertus

Cuttlebug $71

Frixion erasable pen uses heat to make the writing disappear

Frixion erasable pens are hugely popular in Japan, but relatively unknown in the States. I didn’t even hear about them myself until 2012, though the product has existed for 5+ years.

Frixion pens are not the smearing horror pens that you may have used in school — the ink is not rubbed away — it actually becomes invisible when heated with an erasing motion of the rubber tailcap. No eraser dust is generated.

This pen allows me to take correctable notes at work at the speed and detail I desire, yet have the text be dark enough that the resulting documents can be read when scanned.

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Bug-A-Salt: shoot pesky flies with a pinch of table salt

[Video Link] I ordered and received my Bug-A-Salt gun late last fall, pretty late in the fly season to really get to put it to serious use. Well, early spring in Western Washington and they are coming back. Over the years I became very proficient with rubber bands, hunting flies and yellow jackets – this takes it to a whole new level.

The Bug-A-Salt doesn’t “cream” the flies, leaves them pretty well intact, but it is quite effective. Non-toxic, environmentally friendly, it is spring powered and doesn’t eat batteries. Just table salt.

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Kuhn Rikon Epicurean Garlic Press handles unpeeled cloves and ginger

I’ve used this tool for about 10 years and it’s still going strong. It’s probably the best garlic press in the world. It’s constructed very robustly from stainless steel; it has an unusual lever-action which is far superior to the one-to-one action of most garlic presses; it opens up easily and is trivial to clean.

To see a demo, have a look at America’s Test Kitchen Equipment Review [Video Link] where they come to the same conclusion.

But note that Kuhn Rikon have another garlic press called the Easy Squeeze, which is a lot cheaper. It has a slightly different action and plastic handles. It’s not nearly as good. -- Stuart Wray

Kuhn Rikon Epicurean Garlic Press $37

Protect power cords from cable-gnawing cats

My cats have picked up the habit of chewing on laptop power cords. They’ve bitten clean through them at least ten times. I got tired of repairing the cords, so I went on Amazon in search of a solution. I ordered a product called Crittercord Micro. It’s 6 feet of split plastic tubing infused with “citrus scent and bitter taste” to discourage animals from chewing. It cost $10.

Crittercord works as advertised, but the solution is worse than the problem — the smell is unbearably foul. It reminds me of the nauseous odor of hair curling preparations. Everyone in the house complained about the penetrating stench.

I told my friend Sean Ragan about my gnawing cats, and he recommended ¼-inch split loom tubing. For $12 I was able to buy a 100-foot roll, which is more than enough for all of our laptop power cords. It has no odor, and it works beautifully. The cats want nothing to do with it. Perhaps the tubing doesn’t have the right mouthfeel or pleasant-smelling plasticizers that my cats love.

The tubing is flexible enough that I leave it on the power cord when I travel. -- Mark Frauenfelder

American Terminal SL250-100 1/4-Inch Split Loom Tubing, 100 feet $12