Cool Tools


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

The Good Life Lab: A modern manual for living off-the-grid

When I was editor of Craft magazine, I always looked forward to Wendy Jehanara Tremayne’s next “Re-Fitted” column, which profiled a waste-conscious maker and included a how-to project by that person. A few of the projects included making textiles out of plastic bags, turning used clothing into a quilt, and building a beautiful outdoor fence with found branches and tie wire. Even more inspiring than her articles, however, were our phone conversations between magazine issues. After chatting about her next article idea, she’d briefly enchant me with her snippets of how she and her husband, Mikey, left their high-powered jobs in New York and moved to Truth or Consequences, NM, to live as waste-free and off the grid as possible. Always in a rush, I would hang up and then wish I had gotten more details.

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Consumer guide to drugs: Tripology

Because most psychedelic drugs are illegal, reliable consumer information about them is rare. For many years I have been looking for a comparative survey of available “head drugs” that would truthfully and simply provide basic info on each. What is it? What effects does it have when you take it? What’s a typical dose? What is the trip like? What are the dangers, risks and side effects? I looked everywhere for this kind of information, but with no success. Most people get their info from friends of friends, and it is usually unreliable. I finally found what I was looking for in a small book published by a non-profit drug treatment and advocacy center in the UK. The thin cartoonishly illustrated booklet is aimed at young people who use drugs and it is simply stating the facts: Here’s what the drug is, why people use it, and what the effects and downsides of using it are. In addition to the highs, the book realistically addresses the “costs” of use, overuse, and abuse. (Note: their discussion of the legal status is UK-based.)

This is the best consumer guide to mind-bending drugs I’ve seen. If you know of a better one, please comment. Don’t just say No. Say Know. -- Kevin Kelly

Tripology

35-Cent Money Clip

After nearly a lifetime of getting Costanza’ed in the bottom by my wallet, I began to use this 35¢ tool and have never looked back, so to speak.

It firmly clamps bills and even cards in place until use, is easily removable and has caused much envious conversation.

The only drawback is that I bought a box of 12 (the smallest I could find) and am still using the same one after six years.

Appropriate technology rules!

-- Mark Kiemele

Ideal Document Clamps $4 / 12 clamps

OXO adjustable measuring cup

OXO has a serious presence in my kitchen, but the one- and two-cup adjustable measuring cups I added four months ago might be the last items I would sell. They are darned near perfect.

I’ve used other plunger-and-sleeve style adjustable measuring cups, and they were great for measuring odd quantities or volumes without using several different-sized cups (or one size several times), but sticky or oily stuff got in between the plunger and the sleeve, making reuse impossible without stopping to disassemble and clean the cup.

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Parker Jotter Pen: Lightweight, smooth-writing pen

Earlier this year I purchased a Parker Jotter stainless steel pen based purely on its cool factor as being the pen that James Bond used in the 1995 film Goldeneye, as I had seen on the Bond Lifestyle web page. I searched for it online and ended up purchasing one from my local office and art supply store. I appreciated its sleek design and modest price coupled with the cool factor instantly… but the more I used the pen during my work days the more I came to appreciate it, for you see this pen ultimately changed my life.

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Bamboo wok brush: easy, no-soap wok and pan cleaning tool

I use well-seasoned cast iron and carbon steel pans for the better part of my cooking. To clean them, I’ve used the same bamboo wok brush than I bought at a corner market in Sacramento in 1990. I’ve been thinking of buying a new one, just so I can phase it in over a few years while I slowly retire the original. It only takes a few swishes around the inside of the pan with hot water (no soap!) and a rinse to clean a pan. In the time I’ve been using it on my iron and steel pans, including the wok I use occasionally, I’ve gone through countless sponges, scotch-brite pads, and those looped-plastic scrubbies that I use on stock pots etc., all of which get pretty hinky once put into use and have to be run through the dishwasher to get free of food particles. It also looks dignified and fine sitting on the countertop by the sink, has just gotten more seasoned, and never needs more than a rinse to get clean. The edges of the cane bristles are pretty blunted by now and a new one might work better for attacking the occasional nuclear cooking mess. On the other hand, it’s gentle enough on the built-up seasoning in my pans that they keep getting non-stickier and shed scorched cheese like schmutz on teflon.

The brush I bought way back when has flat bristles, about 11 inches long by 3/16 wide, and stouter than most of the wok brushes I’ve seen recently in Asian groceries. I can’t imagine that there’s been much innovation in wok brush technology in the last 3000 years, but quality is probably inconsistent on an item like this, even from the same seller. Unless you have access to Asian markets and can shop around while you’re out making your weekly durian run, Amazon has a variety to choose from, all about $7.50 with shipping. The Wok Shop seems to be reputable, but it might be prudent to order a few just in case yours only lasts as long as a good hamster. -- Brian Garber-Yonts

Bamboo Wok Brush $7

Sign Game: tricks of the trade from a professional sign painter

It’s always fun to cruise through Fantagraphics’s store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. You never know what you might stumble across amid the new comics releases, independent zines and assorted odd runs and old stock there. I happened upon a copy of Justin Green’s Sign Game (ST Publications and Last Gasp Of San Francisco). It's an 80-page paperback collection from 1995 of the monthly comic strips Green did for the sign painter’s trade newsletter Signs of the Times from back in the 1980s and 90s.

As detailed in Green’s comics, that was a turbulent time of transition for sign painters. Just as desktop publishing and digital photography transformed the graphic design and photography businesses (ask bankrupt Kodak about that!), the dawn of the computerized vinyl letter cutting machines undid the business of hand-lettered and painted signage.

Each densely rich comic takes on one arcane aspect of this dying art, from the ins and outs of doing gold leaf lettering, or how to wield a mahlstick, to the fine points of font design and brush technique needed for painting on the corrugated surface of metal trucks. Green’s sardonic tone and hilarious perspective also illustrate each hard won lesson of running a business, filled with characters like hard-boiled artists, chiseling customers, and back-biting competitors.

As a comic, Green’s one-page masterpieces employs a myriad of graphic techniques: send ups of Johnson Smith & Co. catalog layouts, Goofus and Gallant-ish profiles, Dick Tracy Crimebsuters comic crooks, and an endless supply of cartoon lettering intro panel gimmicks that ape plexiglass, peeling vinyl letters and stencils.

One installment is most telling: his predictions for the sign biz from 1994. Many were already coming true then, like computer-less mini vinyl letter-cutting systems. One thing he did NOT foresee: the current hipster renaissance for all things artisanal—like hand painted signs and lettering! A brand new book and documentary film Sign Painters by Faithe Levine and Sam Macon promises to tell that tale, and I hope it will be as funny and informative as Green’s Sign Game. -- Bob Knetzger

Sign Game, by Justin Green. 1995, 80 pages. $12 and up (out of print)

Casio Pathfinder Solar Atomic Watch

I’ve owned a Casio Pathfinder Solar Atomic series watch for about 5 years. The best things about it: 1) it’s solar powered (I don’t like replacing batteries) and 2) it’s linked to an atomic clock.

I only have to change the time zone when I travel, which can be done at the push of a button.

It's waterproof and does the things most digital watches do (alarms, stopwatch, etc.). It also has a compass, barometer, altimeter, and thermometer, all of which get used when I go backpacking. The compass gets used the most. The barometer is good for predicting weather changes.

I have one small gripe about this watch. It recently needed to be repaired because it displayed “OPEN” on the front. A metal plate inside had shifted. I was able to fix it easily with a PH000 screwdriver.

Its a very tough watch that has been through a lot. After 5 years I still enjoy it immensely. -- Carl Mixon

Casio PAW1100-1V Pathfinder Atomic Solar Watch $145

Inexpensive smooth writing pencil: Mirado Black Warrior

The Mirado Black Warrior pencil is made in the USA from high quality materials, available practically everywhere, and, very importantly, cheap (hey, it’s a pencil, after all).

The Black Warrior’s No. 2/HB graphite is darker and softer than standard No. 2′s and has a wax additive to make it smoother. The writing experience is noticeably superior to most other pencils. It’s easier and more satisfying to write with, with less effort involved. The barrel is round, with a good hand feel, but that also means it rolls off inclined surfaces. One other con: the Pink Pearl eraser has pumice in it, which can abrade paper, unlike nylon erasers.

Other than that, it is flawless (and the cedar is pleasingly aromatic when freshly sharpened). Cheaper pencils aren’t a bargain if they’re hard to sharpen, scratchy to write with, and the lead tends to break. More expensive graphite pencils that are more suited to artists, along with the frequently mentioned Blackwings, don’t seem as practical at $20 for 12, in my opinion. They’re like the Ferraris of pencils, and harder to source than the Mirado.

I’ve used these pencils for over a year, and haven’t found one that has more bang for the buck. Paired with the Kum sharpener, these are a no-brainer part of my EDC (every day carry).

-- Tom Anvari

[On my friend Michael Pusateri's advice, I ordered 3 dozen of these pencils. They are about 90% as good as my favorite pencil, the Blackwing 602, which costs five times as much as the Mirado Black Warrior. I now use both! -- Mark]

Mirado Black Warrior Pencil $3.50 a dozen

Magnetic pick-up tool

While opening my Mac Mini to add RAM and replace the hard drive I dropped two screws. They rolled under the couch to be lost in the dust bunnies. The hard drive screw was only about 2mm in size. My old eyes weren’t up to spotting the tiny thing. I found my magnetic pick-up tool, extended it and swept it under the couch. Click! Screw #1! Another minute of sweeping. (Shoo away the dogs.) Click Screw #2! And THAT screw is almost microscopic.

I had no idea the tool has an LED light on it. That was a pleasant surprise. It helped me see down the recessed screw holes. -- Mike Andrews

Craftsman Magnetic Pick-Up Tool with Light $21