Panda Ultra Wifi 150Mbps Wireless N 2.4Ghz Adapter

Why would you need a WiFi adapter for your laptop, when one is built in? Well, the built in one might be broken, or only support an older standard.

But this tool is really cool when not used as an adapter — but when used as an access-point.

Hotels (and the more expensive ones do this more frequently than inexpensive hotels) nickel-and-dime you on Wifi connectivity. One of the ways they do this is by selling you connectivity to ONE device.

ONE?! I’d bet most hotel guests have at least a smart-phone, in addition to their laptop, and possibly tablets, e-readers, wifi-equipped cameras, etc.

Enter this little tool.

You install it in your laptop (I use it in a Windows 7/64 bit laptop, but other Windows versions, as well as Mac and many Linux versions are supported) and it takes the incoming wifi from the hotel and re-transmits it as an access point, to which you (and your family or buddies) can connect.

It is small enough to simply throw in your kit and carry all the time (though so small you may easily lose it in your gear pack) and cheap enough to be a no-brainer purchase for any frequent traveler.

-- Michael Orr  

Available from Amazon



Dime Tech Waistband Portable Voice Amplifier

I earn a living explaining tech to people, but I have a rather soft voice. That can create some challenges, especially when I want to talk for several hours at a mini maker faire. I did some research on Amazon.com and opted for this portable voice amplifier. It worked very well for my needs at a recent mini maker faire. I was able to speak for several hours without going hoarse. It has rechargeable lithium batteries.

The limitations of this device? Sometimes it squeaks with feedback if you turn up the volume to the highest settings. The device is loud enough for my needs without turning it up all the way.

Another useful purpose for this device is for use at CoderDojo meetings — where children sometimes make presentations about computer programming. At one such meeting I attended, a very bright 2nd grader was explaining about the Python program she is working on. If I had owned this device before her presentation, I would have loaned it to her — and her voice would have carried further back into the room.

I’d strongly recommend this device as a purchase for school and public libraries, as some community members might need to use such a device just once or twice a year — and it might not make sense to purchase the device to own privately for such sparing use.

-- Phil Shapiro  

Available from Amazon



Xtracycle Electric Cargo Bicycle with Hooptie Child Handrail

edgerunner
(Click image to embiggen)

My wife and I live in San Francisco with our two children, who are now 6 and 4. Our apartment lacks a parking spot, and it’s always a drag trying to find street parking both at home and at most of our errand or kid-trip destinations. When we do drive in the city, traffic is often heavy. I find myself gazing wistfully at the cyclists passing by us.
Back in February 2013, we bought an Edgerunner Electric cargo bicycle, from Xtracycle, and it immediately became indispensable. We rely on it almost every day, and have more than halved our car use. Xtracycles are “longtail” bikes, which means that their frames extend further back than typical bike frames, creating a longdeck over the rear wheel. Xtracycle and World Bike founder Ross Evans originally invented this style of bike as a cargo-carrying bicycle add-on for the developing world, and he open-sourced the geometry of his frame-extension solution to create a shared standard for longtail bikes. As a result, numerous third-party manufacturers now make Xtracycle-compatible accessories, ranging from panniers and decks to friction-drive motors and pedal-powered blenders.

In contrast to bikes modified with the Xtracycle frame extension, the Edgerunner Electric is built with a one-piece frame to conform to the Xtracycle standard. There are other popular cargo bikes based on purpose-built longtail frames, such as Surly Big Dummy, which follows the Xtracycle standard, and the Yuba Mundo, which does not. but the Edgerunner uniquely has a smaller, 20″ rear wheel. This lowers the center of gravity of any load in back, which makes the bike more stable and easier to ride, It also increases the rear wheel’s torque, which helps with carrying loads up hills.

To carry our kids, we outfitted our bike with a Hooptie Handrail, which rings the rear deck and gives them more to hold on to than they would have with handlebars. Surrounded by the Hooptie, they have fun riding forwards, backwards, facing each other, and facing away from each other– all four permutations. I especially love it when we take a family bike trip and my wife takes “the Big Bike” with the kids in back; that way, I can talk, high-five, and clown around with the kids from my own bike, riding close behind. It’s a blast.

The bike’s switchable “electric assist” uses an internal rear hub motor to boost your pedal power, and a thumb throttle lets you ride the bike without pedaling at all. Charging the battery takes about 4 hours, and we do it every few days. I usually ride the bike without the assist switched on, and it pedals just fine, although it does feel heavy. I use the assist when taking kids or heavy loads up hills, and I almost never use the throttle. I see electric bikes as “cheating” and we almost didn’t get the Electric version because it costs $1000 more and I was so impressed from test-riding the regular, non-motorized Edgerunner with both kids. But now I’m very glad that we got the Electric; it makes a big difference in our hilly city, and we use the Big Bike far more often than we would if it lacked the motor. No matter how lazy you’re feeling, you won’t balk at taking an electric-assist bike.

I believe we are calmer and happier since we got our Edgerunner Electric. You can park it anywhere that you can lock a bike, and it’s more fun, feels better, and is often faster than hauling the kids around town in an autosaurus, getting stuck in traffic and having to hassle with child seats. There’s no gas to buy and low maintenance costs, and if we went car-free with it, we could stop buying auto insurance. I love taking my kids on it, talking with them about the interesting things that we see while riding, and joining the growing number of young-kid families around here who ride cargo bikes and ring their bells when they pass each other.

-- Paul Spinrad  



Wide Mouth Canning Jar Accessories

I was planning to write a review of the Norpro Wide Mouth Funnel, because it’s one of my favorite kitchen tools and has revolutionized my food storage process. But then I realized the funnel is a small a part of a larger system of jars in my kitchen.

The iconic canning jar — better known as the Mason or Ball jar — is the only cheap, standardized storage solution I know. There are, of course, fancier, more expensive jars available, but buying enough of them to be truly useful is cost-prohibitive, and with new designs you run the risk the company will stop making them after you’re heavily invested. Weck, Fido and Bernoulli jars, while classic and useful for specific purposes, lack full standardization: you take apart the lid for cleaning and then wonder which jar that lid belongs to. Not so the canning jar.

Usually around $1 apiece (or 25 to 50 cents in thrift stores), canning jars are cheap enough to build a collection. I have at least a dozen of each size in regular rotation in my kitchen, pantry and fridge and use them many times a day:

  • In the morning I pull out a few 4oz jars and dole out my vitamins for the day.
  • I pack lunch items, including soup, tea, pudding, and nuts or seeds, in half pint and pint jars which then go into an insulated lunch bag (available at your local thrift store).
  • We use the pint size as drinking glasses, of course. At our wedding we had an assortment of jars and colored sharpies for guests to label them with. (Classy, I know.)
  • My immersion blender fits snugly into a wide-mouth jar to make shakes, mayonnaise or whipped cream. Leftovers can be easily capped and stored.
  • When I make sauerkraut or other anaerobic ferments, I use a 4oz canning jar as a weight inside a wide mouth or bail-top jar, to keep the veggies under the brine.
  • Straight-sided jars can be used in the freezer without breaking. Put them in warm water for a few minutes and the food slides right out.
  • Their usefulness is by no means limited to the kitchen.

funnel

The website Food In Jars has a useful taxonomy of canning jar sizes.

Presumably because the patent has long expired, the canning jar is fair game for all kinds of innovative accessories. My favorites are the aforementioned funnel, which works elegantly with a small strainer in both wide or standard mouth jars. One-piece lids are also handy.

There are a myriad of other innovative accessories, including the Cuppow (previously reviewed on Cool Tools), Kraut Kaps, ReCAP, Tattler lids, and the Holdster. So far none of these have proven themselves indispensable, but they’re all evidence that the magnificent canning jar continues to inspire.

A couple of caveats:

Unless you have tiny hands (or an excellent dish washer), stick to mostly wide mouth jars. Standard jars are hard to clean (except for the shallow 4oz size).

Although “salad in a jar” is a thing, canning jars don’t make great lunch containers if you pack sandwiches or just want a “bowl like” dining experience.

As far as I’m concerned there really isn’t a perfect non-plastic lunch container on the US market. I’ve tried many, from Indian tiffins to Ikea glass lunch containers. Inevitably they aren’t leak proof, or they are but then they get a dent, or you lose the lid, or the seal gets filthy or wears out, and then the parts aren’t replaceable, or the company stops making them and you have to buy a new set. I dream that one day someone will design a standardized, open-source, leak-proof travel bowl. I already have a name for it: the extra-wide mouth.

-- Reanna Alder  



Rinnai Direct Vent Wall Furnace

I’ve had a similar Rinnai direct vent heater similar to the newer model for over 3 years. It replaced an older Italian made direct vent heater that was poorly designed. The Rinnai has a digital thermostat and uses a piezo lighter. It comes on reliably and there’s no pilot light at all. It direct vents to the outside through a very small pipe and is very easy to install. This heater heats my office in Connecticut from October to April reliably and efficiently.

It has a low setting that keeps the temperature above 5OF and then you can set the thermostat from 60 to your preference. When it’s 0°F outside my office is comfortable and my total heating costs for the season are around $300.

They have versions for propane and natural gas. If you have a small space that needs to be heated reliably you should consider one of these heaters. They also have larger models but I’ve never tried them. I had considered putting in a heat pump/air conditioner (Mr.Slim). It would be interesting to see which would be more efficient/costly to run.

-- J. Sciarra  

Available from Amazon



T-Reign Retractable Gear Tethers

I use the T-Reign gear tether to keep my stuff within reach and ready for use. I received a gear tether as a gift and quickly had to order a couple more for other uses. I keep one for my EMT shears clipped to a D ring in a cargo pocket. The shears are ready for immediate use and if they’re dropped they retract right back to where I can find them again without looking. I have another for my GPS and a third with a case for my digital camera.

Made in the USA they have a strong kevlar cord which after a year of continuous use is not fraying or showing signs of wear.

My sons are in the army and both use these to keep critical tools and gear secure and available when on duty.

-- Charles Kinnear  

Available from Amazon



SuperMemo + Anki

In high school, I tried to learn Spanish, and failed. In college, I tried again, and failed again. Then, in my thirties, I discovered SuperMemo, and within a year I had memorized thousands of Spanish words and phrases and was finally on my way to speaking Spanish.

SuperMemo is software premised on the idea that there is an ideal time to practice any item you are trying to remember. You want to practice when you have almost forgotten it. Too soon, and you waste your time, and even interfere with long term memory formation. Too late, and you’ve lost the trace, and have struggle to learn it again. There is a simple equation that describes the shape of the forgetting curve, but the exact curve is different for every item and for every person. There is no single “best pace” for memorizing all things.

However, your ideal time to practice can be predicted from your history of attempted recall. The inventor and memory expert Piotr Wozniak reduced this practice to software many years ago, and his technique, called “spaced repetition,” is now available in quite a few learning products, including Wozniak’s own SuperMemo, and an open source version called Anki. None of them are perfect from a usability point of view. But any of them will work far, far better than random study of flashcards. These tools will not give you all the pieces of the learning puzzle, obviously. Memorization is only one step. But it is a crucial, difficult, first step, and it is wonderful to get a boost.

I recommend SuperMemo or Anki to every student who needs to memorize: vocabulary, science and medical terms, names and faces, musical chords, technical specs — anything that can be reduced to a flash card.

SuperMemo for Windows (its main version) has a famously slow-to-evolve interface that will irritate anybody used to the convenience of modern UX, but it contains many wonderful features, including “incremental reading,” which is a way to save and remember passages from books and articles. Anki is quite primitive in terms of features, but has an up-to-date interface and is available on most platforms, including an iOS and free Android app.

an

-- Gary Wolf  

SuperMemo (Windows)
$60

Anki
Free, donations welcome

SuperMemo iPhone app
Free, with in-app purchases for language courses



Dorkfood DSV Temperature Controller for Sous Vide

Works flawlessly, controlling temperature to one degree. Using it with my 25-year-old Proctor Slo-Cooker (Original cost $19). Best thing so far is 48-hour short ribs. Cooking them at 140 degrees for two whole days makes the best tasting beef dish I ever had. The meat is totally different texture than what a braise gives you and they still are pink on the inside.

It sure beats spending $400 for a sous vide water oven. I just set it up in the garage and let it go. I do use it with my vacuum food packer but you can use it with regular zip lock bags, (just remove the air using the archimedes principle).

-- Bruce Johnson  



Camelbak Eddy Bottle

At night I wake up with a dry throat and reach blindly for water. I used to knock over glasses and cups until I found this two years ago. It’s basically a sippy cup for adults. It has rubber mouthpiece that doesn’t open until you squeeze slightly with your lips, so no dribbling, and it has a straw so you don’t even need to tip it. Plus it’s dish-washable. I love my sippy cup.

-- Ross Reynolds  

Available from Amazon



Science Fair Handbook

Science fairs are the hidden secret sauce for America’s innovation. They instill the joys of the scientific method early in impressionable minds. Sadly, science fairs are in decline in the US (and on the rise in China, which has a million kids do them each year.) Get your school to run one, or do your own.

My kids’ school promoted science fair participation, and one of our daughter’s projects made it to the California state level one year. In assisting my kids (yes it is okay) I’ve accumulated a entire bookshelf of science fair guides and idea books. The best of all these is the second edition of a 120-page book co-authored by the great science and science-fiction author Isaac Asimov. Aimed at parents wanting to help, and teachers hoping to set one up, it emphasizes the process of science fairing at the elementary school level. Basically, how to do a small experiment and report on it. Then how to judge it.

Unlike most science fair books at this level it is not packed with experiments recycled from others; the ideal experiment is one you don’t know the answer to. That makes your experiment more valuable and more fun for everyone. This handbook does list a few suggested topics by age to spur an idea. For inspiration of possibilities, we haven’t found anything better than old episodes of Mythbusters. As Adam Savage said in one, “Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.”

-- KK  

Science Fair Handbook
Anthony Fredericks, Isaac Asimov
2001, 128 pages
$19

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

science-fair-handbook1sm

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Developing a Hypothesis

After students have designed an appropriate question, they must turn that question into a hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess, a statement of how the scientist thinks the experiment will turn out. It is a prediction, based on the best available information, of what the scientist believes will happen at the conclusion of the experiment. Although the hypothesis is founded on factual data the student has collected during the research stage, it is the student’s opinion deduced from those facts. A well-constructed hypothesis identifies the subjects of the experiment (plants, mice) and states what is being measured (rate of growth, weight), the conditions of the experiment (different-colored light sources, junk food versus regular food), and the results expected (light colors produce faster growth rates than dark colors; a nutritious diet produces higher weights than a junk food diet). Thus a student’s question about a specific area of interest can be developed into a hypothesis that forms the foundation of the student’s investigation.

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Avoid clutter

It is important to include enough items to illustrate important concepts of the project, but it is equally important to avoid crowding the display table. Too many items detract from the display just as much as too few.

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Scientific Thought

Is the experiment designed to answer a question?
Are the procedures appropriate to the area of investigation?
Is the topic or problem stated clearly and completely?
Has scientific literature been cited?
Have scientists or other experts been consulted?
Has a systematic plan of action been stated?
Is there a need for further research or investigation?
Is there an adequate conclusion?
Is a project notebook provided with the display?
Is the project notebook sufficiently detailed in relation to the scope of the project?
Have any problems or limitations that occurred been noted?
Is the amount of data commensurate with the scope of the project?
Does the student understand all the facts and/or theories?