Cool Tools


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

WiFi router with impressive range: ASUS RT-N66U

For the past few years I’ve been using an Apple Time Capsule as my WiFi router. The range was awful but I kept trying to boost it with Airport Express devices. Finally I threw in the towel and bought a new WiFi router, the ASUS RT-N66U. Suddenly we have amazing coverage all over the house, even way down in our basement. I’m kicking myself for not getting this little powerhouse long ago. -- Dan Lyons

[After reading Dan's recommendation, I bought one of these to replace my Airport Extreme, which couldn't penetrate the chicken-wire Faraday cages in my house's walls. It greatly improved the range of our home Wi-Fi signal. - Mark]

ASUS RT-N66U Dual-Band Wireless-N900 Gigabit Router: $141

The Teenage Liberation Handbook

This book is radical. It tries to persuade teenagers to drop out of high school — in order to “get a real life and education” as its subtitle says. This is a dangerous thing to give to your child, because there is a significant correlation between amount of formal education and almost any outcome you care about, including longevity, divorce and poverty rates. Yet informal homeschoolers and unschoolers are outside of that measurement, and by most accounts are doing super. As a college dropout myself, I am sympathetic to alternatives to school.

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So Good They Can't Ignore You - become expert in something, and the passion will follow

"Follow your passion" is the dogmatic advice for building a career. But it is woefully incomplete and even misleading for some people. Better advice is “Become so good they can’t ignore you”; that is, become expert in something, and the passion will follow. In other words, flip the mission from “find your passion so that you can be useful” to “be useful so you can find your passion.” Acquiring expertise is a lot of work, requiring deliberate practice, patience, shrewd acceptance of control of your time, and other meta skills. While this book changed my mind about how skills trump passion, I consider it the only first word in outlining how one goes about this. But it’s good enough for framing the question that I gave all my young adult kids a copy. -- Kevin Kelly

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Sample Excerpts

Blendtec Home Blender: powerful home blender can chop, juice, grind grain, and more

I’m tempted to say that this tool is a life changer, but I’m prone to exaggeration, so I’ll just say it’s a game changer. The game being that by mid-day I’m usually rolling with my writing or book layout and don’t like to take the time to make a decent lunch.

Enter the Blendtec and “green smoothies.” I combine greens plus fresh or frozen fruit, vitamins, protein powder, almonds, hemp seeds and whatever else I see around, turn on the Blendtec and have a delicious drink while working. I do it 2-3 times a week.

I’m getting fresh-from-garden raw greens — parsley (which is fragrant in drink), kale, chard, or lettuce, whatever looks good, plus fruit, protein, carbos, vitamins. There are tons of recipes for green smoothies. I use Gold Standard vanilla whey protein — good flavor, high protein (something like 55 grams in 2 scoops).

This is a big powerful machine and it can be used for any number of things. It’s nothing like the blenders most of us are familiar with. In addition to smoothies, you can chop, juice, grind grain, and make soup or ice cream.

I got it for $400 from Amazon. Expensive, but high quality, highly useful, long lasting.

Here’s a comparison between the Blendtec and the other super blender, the VitaMix. You can also do a search for “Blendtec vs. VitaMix” in Google for more comparisons.

-- Lloyd Kahn

Blendtec Home Blender $360

Best beginner telescope: Celestron FirstScope

The Celestron FirstScope is the best pick for an absolute beginner level telescope. Most entry-level scopes are crap, and most useable scopes start at $300. Since the FirstScope costs only $42, you might be tempted to dismiss it as more useless junk. But I’ve been using the FirstScope, and it is sweet. It needs a sturdy chair or table to perch on, but otherwise is easy to handle. It is compact for storage; it can fit onto a shelf — and it is the perfect size for a small kid. Pretty durable, too. With its 3-inch mirror you can see moons of Jupiter, ring of Saturn, and lunar craters. (I missed that recent comet.) Many other buyers mention that if you substitute decent eyepieces (from another scope) it improves the view tremendously. With one of those you can view a few bright galaxies. It will also focus as close as 30 feet away; we’ve used it as a terrestrial telephoto lens to scan the wildlife on the mountain behind our house.

This is an adequate first telescope to try out sky watching for a small investment. If you want to invest into a higher quality telescope, I recommend Ed Ting’s reviews at ScopeReview. It was Ed Ting’s raves about this little gem that turned me onto the FirstScope in the first place. - Kevin Kelly

Celestron 21024 FirstScope Telescope $42