21 January 2017


Ask Cool Tools Featured Questions

Share your knowledge with your fellow Cool Tools readers

Wayne Ruffner would like some suggestions on tweaking or replacing a new laptop touchpad.

01/21/17 --

20 January 2017



Music made easier

There are many studies that demonstrate the value of playing a musical instrument, beyond the music itself. Playing music is excellent mental exercise: simultaneously engaging your brain’s motor, memory, sensory, visual, aural, emotional, and even verbal centers (if you’re singing as well). Playing a musical instrument during adulthood is associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia; it can significantly reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. It’s been shown to help sharpen concentration skills and increase memory capacity; it’s one of the most challenging and beneficial activities a human can undertake.

All excellent reasons to play an instrument… but musically, Iʼm lazy. Very lazy. Though I love music, I had never mastered any instrument, and practicing was always a chore, even with instruments that I loved. Iʼve tried clarinet, recorder, guitar, mandolin, mountain dulcimer and folk harp, but even when I managed to reach some level of competency, I couldnʼt sing and play correctly at the same time. I felt like my brain needed a RAM upgrade.

And then I borrowed an autoharp. Right away, I could strum it on my lap and sing along, without screwing up the chords. I was playing, I was singing, I was stunned — I was hooked. Practicing wasnʼt a chore; now I had to force myself to put the thing down after playing and singing for 5 hours straight into the wee hours of the night. The point is, almost anybody with an elementary sense of rhythm can make music that sounds good from an autoharp, from the very start…and improve over time, as much as they are inclined to.

It’s so, so very much easier than playing a guitar, though I’ll admit, the tuning is a tad tedious (36 strings). But the chord bars on an autoharp vastly decrease your chances of hitting the wrong note, and there are none of those cramp-inducing finger contortions required for playing guitar. Just hold down a bar, and strum — and there’s your chord! You can take an autoharp as far as you want. In a few hours you can play well enough to chord along with your favorite tunes. In weeks, you can learn to play the harp upright, and pick out tunes or harmonies. Eventually, who knows? You might be attending festivals, entering an autoharp contest, or playing for yourself at home, happy as a clam.

Autoharps can be played in myriad styles: “old-timey” (ala Carter Family, see video below), bluesy, folky, lyrical, Celtic, rocking, classical. They lend themselves to almost any kind of music you can think of. And the autoharp community is remarkably welcoming and inclusive, in my experience. Even the “superstars” of the autoharp are willing to teach beginners. I recently attended “Seattle Autoharp Week” where participants, in small groups, took lessons from some of the best ʻharpists in the world. (Imagine a beginning guitar class taught by Eric Clapton.)

Many people donʼt realize how beautiful an autoharp can sound; if theyʼve heard one at all, chances are theyʼve heard one out of tune — ghastly. Autoharps do need to be carefully tuned, and this does take time; I recommend getting a ʻharp with fine tuners if possible, as well as a good chromatic tuner such as the clip-on Snark HZ-1 (or a tuning app such as iStroboSoft). Fine tuners arenʼt cheap (adds about $100), but theyʼll save you much time and frustration. Beware of old autoharps that have sat in a closet for years: sometimes their sound quality deteriorates if they are neglected and improperly stored; strings may be “dead” and probably also need replacing for optimal sound. There are some “autoharp doctors” around who can rejuvenate many of the old autoharps — or tell you if that ʻharp is probably a lost cause.

New mass-manufactured ʻharps should preferably be checked and set up by an autoharp expert — not all new ʻharps are ready-to-play straight from the factory.

Autoharp prices range from zip (check your local Freecycle or Craigʼs List page) to over $2,000 for a custom-made luthier ‘harp. You can pick up a 21-bar Oscar Schmidt with fine tuners that has been set up by an autoharp expert for about $400-$450. I bought an Evoharp (lighter, prettier, handmade, available in right or left-handed models) for $850.

See the Autoharp Page for luthier links; if youʼre the adventurous type, check out eBay. Music isn’t just something you play—it’s something you do. The Autoharp Page: Links to autoharp makers, publications, recordings, festivals, artists, teachers, hints and tips, and especially: the Cyberpluckers, an online forum where you can ask any autoharping question (as long as you check out the FAQs first). Beginners very welcome.

Beginning Autoharp with Evo Bluestein DVD I donʼt learn music well from books, but I could follow Evo just fine, and pause him, rewind, repeat until I got the lesson down. Very helpful to be able to see what youʼre supposed to be doing, as well.

01/20/17 -- Barbara Dace

19 January 2017


Eric Moore, IT Manager at Institute for the Future

Cool Tools Show 070: Eric Moore

Our guest this week is is Eric Moore. Eric is the IT Manager at Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. He previously worked for Apple in its Information Systems and Technology Department. Having grown up on a farm in Georgia, he’s a tinkerer by nature who loved to break things and put them back to together to learn how they worked.

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Show on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

Show notes:

Anker Compact Car Jump Starter ($80)
“I have an old, classic ’72 Chevy Blazer that I have in storage. It was in storage for over a year. I took it there and changed out the fluids and was getting ready to start it and obviously the battery was dead, but I connected this thing to it and without hesitation it started it up and when it died a couple of times, each time I connected that thing to it it started it, no problem. … It has a fast charger port, a higher voltage as well, flashlight, emergency SOS signal for the flashlight as well. This thing is awesome.”

Anything After App (Discontinued)
Alternative: After Credits (FREE)
“After you sit and watch a movie now they usually have teasers at the end … if there’s a teaser to the sequel or outtakes or gag reels or whatever; this app lets you know whether you need to sit around and wait after the movie to see additional content. Also, based on the actual people that have viewed the content, lets you know if it’s worth waiting around for it as well.”

Breville Milk Café Milk Frother ($130)
“[This is] one of the best pieces of hardware that I own. This thing basically takes your milk and it steams it, so you don’t have to buy that really, really expensive machine with the frother wand on the end. You dump it in there and it has a couple of discs in there, if you want cappuccino or frappuccino, it does everything for you. You push a button, set your temperature and walk away from it.”

DMD Panorama ($1.99, iTunes)
“What this does it allows you to take 360-degree spheric panorama pictures, so you can share those pictures with friends. It’s a different level of immersion depending on the venue. I have pictures from Hawaii and Waimea Canyon with this thing. You can zoom in and just spin around the picture itself and then also for people that use Google Cardboard or any type of VR hardware, you can basically load that picture up and it’s like you’re walking around in that picture. … Basically, it’s a fully encompassed 360 picture.”

Ricoh Theta S ($305)
“It’s super small, super compact…You can have it in your pocket and most times you won’t even notice it’s there it’s so small…It basically takes 360 degree pictures as well, but the awesome thing is you can live stream.”

01/19/17 --

19 January 2017


Clean/Dirty Half Cube Packing Organizers

Pack clean clothes on one side, and dirty in the other

I’ve been using this for travel since I first noticed them earlier this year. It’s basically the same product as a normal Eagle Creek packing organizer, but with one innovation, which is that there are two sides to the organizer with a barrier panel between them. One side has a white zipper and the other has a gray zipper. This allows you to keep your clean clothes on one side and the dirty clothes on the other.

There are two reasons this is cool. The reason that might be obvious is the ability to keep track of which clothes are clean and which are dirty. But the less obvious and ultimately more important reason for me has been that it permits your packed clothes to retain a consistent and predictable size and shape, so the way you pack when you leave on your trip stays the same as you unpack and repack at various points during your journey. There are various sizes, but I picked one that’s about 10 x 14 that I can use as the “core object” in a bundle wrap if I’m going to be packing more stuff than will fit in the cube.

01/19/17 -- David Zicarelli

18 January 2017


What’s in My Bag? — J Young

What a fire and water restoration estimator needs out in the field

I am an estimator and project manager for Northwest Professional Services, a cleaning and restoration company. This is my everyday carry bag for days out in the field.

The bag:

OGIO Hip Hop Messenger
Dumb name but truly an amazing bag. This thing is perfectly laid out for everything I need even if it just a little outdated (the cellphone pocket was clearly designed for a flip-phone). So, you can keep your single compartment leather satchel, I’ll stick to this one.

What’s inside:

Dell Latitude E6230 (Used and new from $345)
Truthfully, I could maybe get by with a really nice chromebook for about 70% of what I do (emailing, running Slack and Trello), but the software I use for writing insurance estimates for water and fire damage is heavily GPU intensive and also requires Windows. This machine has been a real workhorse.

32 oz Nalgene Water Bottle ($10)
Hydration … enough said.

Koss PortaPro Headphones ($40)
Although I recently replaced these with Sol Republic Shadow bluetooth buds, these are still my favorite cans of all time. Koss hasn’t changed the design since 1984 and still continues to produce them. Maybe it’s because they got things right with these the first time? In between job site visits, I spend a fair amount of time at coffee shops and libraries writing up repair estimates and emailing reports. The best way to put out the “do not disturb” vibe to people around you is to wear a pair of headphones (sometimes, I don’t even plug them in).

Dewalt Tape measure ($23)
Yes, I’ve seen your fancy lazer. I like my tape.

Oakley Eyepatch II Sunglasses($150)
I do a lot of driving in between job sites to measure and inspect, and these are a life saver in the summer.

Chums Surfshort Wallet ($10)
My qualifications for the perfect wallet are simple: compact, only needs to hold credit and business cards, and will survive getting wet. The bonus with this one is that the card pockets on the sides zip shut, so I’ll never have a card fall out accidentally.

Folding utility blade knife ($8)
I never know when I will have to cut into something when inspecting water damage jobs. Sometimes it means opening sheetrock to chase down a pipe that has split, or taking a carpet sample to match for replacement. I have a few really nice folding pocket knives but nothing beats just popping in a new utility blade for instant razor sharpness.

Galaxy S5 Phone (free w/ Verizon plan)
My phone is probably the most used tool in my arsenal. I use the GPS to map routes from job to job, camera to upload pics to Slack so my team can see what I’m sending them in to deal with, and of course communicate with home owners, sub-contractors, and insurance adjusters. I also track my work hours on it. I recently replaced this one with an iPhone 7 (pictures of flooded basements and moldy sheetrock have never looked so beautiful).

Dewalt Pro Contractor’s Portfolio ($19)
I was wooed into buying this originally because of the tiny LED gooseneck light and the built in calculator. The light broke in the first week and the calculator followed suit soon after, prompting me to velcro my own calculator directly over it.

Logitech Marathon Mouse M705 ($29)
Best mouse ever. Compact, wireless, full of customizable shortcut buttons.

Other necessities:

Rescue meds for migraine and assorted allergy meds, etc.
Stress brings on my migraines and having a job that is built on helping people through unexpected emergencies brings on plenty of it.

Hand Sanitizer
The ironic part about writing estimates for a cleaning company is that all the job sites you visit are deplorably un-clean.

01/18/17 -- J Young

18 January 2017


Opening Pry Tool Repair Kit

Tools to open cases and repair electronic devices

If you can’t open it you don’t own it. I like to own my stuff, so I rely on tools to help me open those not-easy-to-open things. The last one I opened was an “instant on” food thermometer, because its internal probe contacts needed cleaning.

The kit comes with a stainless steel blade and steel pry bar, tweezers and five nylon “spudgers.” I usually start with cracking a seam open on the thing that I’m repairing with the steel pry bar, but switch to a plastic spudger once there is room for it.

The tools come in a neat roll.

01/18/17 -- Kent Barnes


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Gerber Diesel Multi-Plier

Multi-Tool features one-handed opening

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Rawhide Mallet

Hit things you don’t want to damage

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Multi-Bit Screwdriver/Nut Driver

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What's in My Bag? 18 January 2017


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What a fire and water restoration estimator needs out in the field

Announcements: 09/6/16


CargoRAXX – unrecommended

This appears to be a shill review. Many thanks to Cool Tools reader Matthew Connor for looking into this. He wrote:

Meaghan Hollywood works for CargoRAXX. Meaghan Hollywood put a review up quasi-anonymously on Amazon. A similarly worded review is now anonymously on KK.org.

On Amazon there are two reviews for the product (https://www.amazon.com/CargoRAXX-S1A-Interior-Management-System/dp/B01A6X4MBS). Neither is attributed by name but the one from January 18th, 2016 refers to “my Tahoe” and read similar to the KK.org review. Let us suppose the author is, in fact, the same person.

Clicking on the name for the review – merely “Amazon Customer” brings up their profile (https://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A1CF94IIWSAE00/ref=cm_cr_dp_pdp). This profile contains one Wish List on the left side. Clicking on it revels – the name of “Amazon Customer” – it is Meaghan Hollywood.

Ok. I believe at this point the author of the KK review and the author of at least one of the two reviews on Amazon are in fact the same person and that person’s name is Meaghan Hollywood.

Here’s the kicker, CargoRAXX has a website with a blog feature – their blogger’s name is Meaghan Hollywood. (http://cargoraxx.com/5-reasons-re-organize-suv/)

About Cool Tools

Cool Tools is a web site which recommends the best/cheapest tools available. Tools are defined broadly as anything that can be useful. This includes hand tools, machines, books, software, gadgets, websites, maps, and even ideas. All reviews are positive raves written by real users. We don’t bother with negative reviews because our intent is to only offer the best.

One new tool is posted each weekday. Cool Tools does NOT sell anything. The site provides prices and convenient sources for readers to purchase items.

When Amazon.com is listed as a source (which it often is because of its prices and convenience) Cool Tools receives a fractional fee from Amazon if items are purchased at Amazon on that visit. Cool Tools also earns revenue from Google ads, although we have no foreknowledge nor much control of which ads will appear.

We recently posted a short history of Cool Tools which included current stats as of April 2008. This explains both the genesis of this site, and the tools we use to operate it.

13632766_602152159944472_101382480_oKevin Kelly started Cool Tools in 2000 as an email list, then as a blog since 2003. He edited all reviews through 2006. He writes the occasional review, oversees the design and editorial direction of this site, and made a book version of Cool Tools. If you have a question about the website in general his email is kk {at} kk.org.

13918651_603790483113973_1799207977_oMark Frauenfelder edits Cool Tools and develops editorial projects for Cool Tools Lab, LLC. If you’d like to submit a review, email him at editor {at} cool-tools.org (or use the Submit a Tool form).

13898183_602421513250870_1391167760_oClaudia Dawson runs the Cool Tool website, posting items daily, maintaining software, measuring analytics, managing ads, and in general keeping the site alive. If you have a concern about the operation or status of this site contact her email is cl {at} kk.org.