Motorola Moto X

I know Cool Tools is not traditionally a phone/gadget review site, but the Moto X got so much small stuff right that it qualifies as a cool tool.

The biggest is the Active Display, which lets you check the time and notifications without unlocking the phone or even pushing a button. The sensors detect when you pull your phone out of your pocket (or pick it up off the table), and 90% of the time, what you need to know is right there. Because the X has an OLED screen, displaying grey text on a black background uses almost no battery power. That feature alone is such an incredible timesaver that even though my employer provided a brand new iPhone 5S, I find myself reaching for the Moto X first.

The other invaluable feature is being able to say “OK, Google Now” without touching the phone. In the car, this means I can make calls, start music, and navigate without taking my hands off the wheel. It just works, and I can’t imagine switching to a phone that doesn’t include this feature.

Yes, you can put many of the Moto X features on existing Android phones, but this is the only one that does it out of the box, and without sacrificing battery life. I’ve had mine for 6 months, and if I lost it today, I wouldn’t consider replacing it with anything else.

-- Aaron Weiss  

Motorola Moto X, 16GB Unlocked

Available from Amazon


The most effective local community-enhancing tool I know of is Meetup. This service helps you find, recruit, manage, and cultivate people in a local area who are, or could be, sharing an issue, idea, or passion. Let’s say you are a barefoot runner who wants to meet other local barefoot runners, or you are an activist trying to stop land mines in wars and want to engage other like-minded locals, or maybe you have a crazy idea for a new kind of retail store and you want to network with other retail business people. In each case, you can use Meetup to help find others, to help them find you, and most importantly to help you schedule and curate face-to-face meetings gathered around your interest. Meetups can range in size from less than 5 people to more than 500.

I used Meetup (with Gary Wolf) to launch and operate the Quantified Self movement, which now holds regular meetings in almost 100 cities around the world. I’ve also used Meetup to start a community of self publishers in our vicinity interested in sharing their best practices for e-books. And Meetup has saved me much trouble and effort in another way: when I have a yearning to connect to something new to me I often find that someone has already started a local Meetup with this idea or passion. Meetup makes it easy to evaluate and join an ongoing local community. Meetup is 100 times easier than trying to organize a meeting or event by hand. It automates the notifications, the who-is-attending list, the agenda (or not), the map to the meeting place, the calendar, the history of past meetings. Essentially, Meetup makes meeting as self-organizing as possible. Members who attend a meetup rate the meeting afterwards, so there is feedback in improving them.

Every Meetup is run differently. Many are casual, open to anyone, and free. Some organizers charge membership dues as the number of people attending increases; some charge event fees. The Meetup software handles all these payment options superbly. It does not cost anything to get a Meetup account, or join most Meetups, but it does cost something to organize a Meetup. The “organizer dues” needed to run up to three Meetups is $12 month. If you’ve ever tried to organize regular meetings of any size, you’ll recognize this self-organizing tool as a bargain.


Our seventh Quantified Self Meetup. A decent monthly group of this size was only possible for us because of Meetup.

-- KK  

How to Be Invisible

This a book about how to hide from people who want to find you, such as ex’s, disgruntled associates, opportunistic lawyers, private investigators, stalkers, the press, etc. Hiding means obscuring your identity. It is not about hiding from governments, because as Luna observes, “privacy” is a matter of economics; anyone can be found using enough money, which is what governments have. Luna classifies the 4 levels of obscurity one can achieve by assigning them 4 levels of money paid to find you. Level 1 is hundreds of dollars, Level 2 thousands, and Level 3 tens to hundreds of thousands. Level 4 is the government. The more it costs to find you, the harder you have to work to remain hidden.

This book reveals the many tricks one can do to hide your location, your assets, your identity, while still paying your taxes. Most of these tricks are legal, or at least in the gray zone of “not outright illegal.” (For instance, by supplying true but irrelevant facts, rather than stating something false.) There are many legitimate reasons for not wanting to be found by someone (spousal abuse, escaping revenge, identity theft, etc.) but I think the overriding one that motivates this book is the fear of having assets seized in a frivolous “deep pocket” law suit.

What is clear from this guide is the degree to which one has to disconnect from ordinary connections in order to achieve the higher levels of obscurity. Very few people will want to live with the constraints required to completely mask your true identity. Yet you are only as hidden as your weakest link, which could be one of a thousands everyday connections such as an old account, forgotten password, unexpected stop at a border, or an old friend. Higher levels of disappearing demand relentless attention, and in many ways privacy becomes a full-time obsession, as it has for the author.

Even though he tries hard in this third edition, Luna is not keeping up to date with the digital world. Hiding is harder, but there are also new opportunities as well. However because Luna advises people to stay off social networks, he is not ahead of the curve. (These days if you don’t have a Facebook account full of friends, that is a sign you are fake.) A younger generation will have a harder time implementing these tactics, although the strategy remains the same.

I live my life in the complete opposite direction from what this book advocates, being as transparent and open as possible at all times. Life is too short, and openness has treated me well. Luna would call this naive, and it probably is. There are not many of his suggestions I will actually follow, because I am not battling an ex, not running from the press, not trying to hide assets from unscrupulous lawyers. But as the author notes, the time to enable privacy is before you need it.

Like many other tools, it’s good to know these options exists, even if you have no plans to use them now. Being aware of what possibilities we have for deep disguise and obsessive privacy is empowering. And of course, if you are trying to find someone, this book has all the tricks they may be using. I learned tons and consider it a bargain education.

-- KK  

How To Be Invisible
J. J. Luna
2012, 320 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Level Three

This will almost certainly require a move from your present location. Both your home (or rental property) and you vehicles will be in the names of anonymous limited liability companies (LLCs). Your home address will now be hidden from all but your closest relatives and friends. It will no longer appear on your annual tax returns, or anywhere else. If you follow the directions in chapter 12, “E-mail and the Internet,” your Internet/e-mail connections will be under cover and the black-hat boys and/or law firms may have to pay a PI some truly serious money to track you down. Are you worth that much to them? If not, sleep well.


I learned this one from a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) agent I met, while staying in a motel that was near a flooded area. Some years ago he bought a $98,995 motor home under another name, and did not license it. (He thus saved not only the license fees and road tax, but an $8,513.57 sales tax as well.) For $12 he got a fifteen-day permit to move it to a rural location in another state. From time to time he moves it, each time getting a temporary permit. Try to find out where this agent actually lives!


Watch For This Sneaky Trick

Suppose a private investigator wants to hear you talking to your lawyer (or mistress, or whomever). He may place a conference call, recording every word. Here is how it works. The first call would go to you, and when you answer, the PI punches HOLD and then speed-dials your lawyer. you start saying, “Hello? Hello?” Then your lawyer comes on the line. He recognizes your voice. Each of you may then assume the other person placed the call, and start to chat!


Suppose you wish to send $25,000 from Vancouver, British Columbia, to a friend in Helsinki, Finland. You would hand $25,000 cash to a Vancouver money changer (Hawaladar) in Vancouver, and receive code words (or an agreed signal such as a secret handshake) and a contact address in Helsinki. No actual cash moves out of Canada. Instead, when your friend gives the code to the correspondent hawaladar in helsinki, he will receive the equivalent in euros (less a commission) from money that is already there. To review:

-There are no written documents. The exchanges are based on mutual trust (perhaps for that reason unpopular in the United States?).

-Only local currencies are used. Thus, if you are sending money from the UK to Mexico, you pay in pounds and the receiver in Mexico collects in pesos.

-This exchange cannot be traced because no money crosses a border.


Since the IRS treats one-member LLCs as sole proprietorships for tax purposes, there are no income tax consequences. If you use your LLC for a part-time business, for example, you will merely report earnings and expenses on Schedule C and submit it with your 1040 tax return. Repeat: The income – -if any — is listed on your personal tax return. Nowhere on the tax form will the name of your limited liability company appear. As far as the IRS is concerned, your limited liability company is invisible.

“How can I prove I own the company,” I’m often asked, “if my name doesn’t appear anywhere?” If privacy is the goal, I recommend New Mexico LLCs because they do not show ownership in the Articles of Organization (which are a public record). The best way to prove ownership, then, is to have the original LLC documents coupled with an operating agreement.


Cool Tools Freecycle

You probably have tools and gadgets you no longer use. Perfectly good ones, or maybe ones that are a bit worn, or perhaps you have a basement bin of parts that would be perfect for the right person. You may have thought about listing them on Craigs List for some pocket money. But you never will because its a bother. Yet your stuff may be exactly what your friends, or other readers of Cool Tools might be looking for — especially if it is free for picking up.

Here is a better way to give away cool stuff: Cool Tools Freecycle.

Cool Tools Freecycle is a sub-app that is part of phone/tablet app which lets you instantly post anything you want to give away for free. Your item along with a quick photo is added to a list, which is sorted by distance. So when you look in the app, all the give-aways nearest to you show up first. You respond in the app and it will contact the lister by email. The two of you arrange pickup.

The platform has been designed by the folks who created Delicious and HousingMaps. The platform makes it easy to collaborate small actions. The Cool Tool part is in beta. If folks use it, we’ll develop it more.

Go to an app store to download the app. Once installed scroll to and tap “Cool Tools Freecycle”




Leave comments here on your experience.

— KK



TechShop is a tool shop with a gym style membership. It costs $125 a month, but they have a special right now for $1000 for the year. Their price went up recently, but I am paying $100 a month.

I get full access to their shop, and all of the tools in it that I have taken the safety and basic use class on. On many accessory type tools (like a horizontal band saw for metal) the safety and basic use is free. But on tools which will take more than 10 minutes or so of instruction, the class costs money. Sand blasting and powder coating class was about $60 and took 2 hours. Sheet metal and misc machine shop was about $60 and took about 3 hours. Lathe classes (I have had 3) take about 4 hours each and cost $100 each. I have also had almost all of the welding classes, Lathe classes , and several milling machine classes. These classes each too about 4 hours and cost $100.

In addition to the milling machines they have some CNC milling machines, a water cutter, lathe tables (which get lots of use), a complete wood shop with several ShopBots, table saws, a lathe, band saw, drill press, planers (flat and edge), and the list goes on.

For the tools they supply most of the blades, tooling, tool holders,etc.  On the metal working tools, like the lathe, the liquid lube can create a halo of slick concrete flooring (they have rubber mats to keep things safe). These are tools that even if I were able to afford them, I would not be able to run in my apartment.  I would never get the deposit back for the carpet damage alone.

In addition there are work tables in each of the areas, vent hoods for welding, dust removal in wood working, separate negative pressure air areas, so that wood dust doesn’t get into the oiled metal tools, and metal smells doesn’t go into the classrooms and textiles areas. There are large work areas so you can lay out your project, and it will not be disturbed.

Besides the cost, the only downside is that you have to clean up after you use the tool, but you should be doing that anyways with your own tools. Another downside is that some of the drill bits, or lathe cutters are not the highest quality (these tools tend to be consumed by people learning the tools). So if you do specialty work, it makes sense to purchase a small quantity of bits in the sizes that you use heavily. For instance I have some high grade steel lathe bits for some metal working that I ground (and their grinding room is sound and dust isolated from the rest of the machine shop).  I also have some of my own sewing needles for the regular home and industrial (juki walking foot) sewing machines.

They don’t supply the consumables, but they do have a shop where they sell some consumables, though they also encourage you to get the consumables elsewhere. They also sell stuff that you might want to get your own for like safety glasses and welding gloves (though they also supply these). They keep a limited stock of plexiglass, wood, and metal, and small quantity of  powder coating powders. The stuff in their store pricing is competitive with amazon prime, and it is really convenient in case you forgot something.

They currently have locations in San Francisco Bay Area, Raleigh, North Carolina, Allen Park, and Detroit,  Michigan. And they are planning to open shops in Round Rock, Texas and Brooklyn, New York.

-- Michael McMillan  


Available from TechShop


TeamSnap is an amazing tool for organizing a sports team, club, or other function where you have to coordinate groups of people. There’s a free version that’s got a lot of features, but even more are available on the deluxe version which is about $75 per year. We’ve been using it for about 4 years for different sports (soccer and baseball) for my two boys.

It enables me to manage my teams with ease, both remotely when we’re traveling through a smart phone, as well as using my desktop computer. It’s easier to use than competitor sites that I’ve seen and makes it very easy to coordinate your group of people. Even users that aren’t very computer savvy have been able to use this product very easily.

The free version let’s you manage your team and push the calendar to an iCal that can be accessed and automatically synchronized to a BlackBerry, Android, iPhone, iPod Touch, a Mac, or a computer using the more recent version of Exchange. You can also e-mail your entire team very easily.

The deluxe version allows you to text message your entire team (with multiple text message numbers per player,) track statistics including creating your own customized stats, track availability for your players and coaching staff for a particular event or game, post photos for your team and optionally for their family that you can share, track payments, a place to upload files like player release forms or fund raising forms and they can be shared with people outside of the team which is great for special fund raising letters you have to bring for the team to get credit, and you can have a front page that displays more timely information.

The players can have a thumbnail next to their name which is nice as you’re learning about new players on your team. The maps correspond by default to Google Maps using a location address, but you can change them to be a specific link or to another mapping service. You can create repeating events for practices that are the same day.

The TeamSnap team now has a free iPhone/iPod Touch application too. They are wonderful about getting back to me regarding requests for modifications or if there are problems with the website, but it’s been very solid.

-- Greg Ostravich
Free (with limitations)
Basic, $55/year or $6.95/month
Premium, $79/year, or $9.95/month

Oxfam America Unwrapped


All the adults in my family agreed this year that they don’t want any more stuff in their lives at this point. So instead of buying them gifts, my Cool Tool for the holidays is Oxfam’s Unwrapped project: I buy a gift in someone’s name, they get a card, I get a tax deduction, and someone in a developing country gets a goat, some chickens, a school desk and chair, some text books, or something else they really need. While I imagine a portion of my donation goes to fund overhead at Oxfam, they are one of the more efficient charities around. Based on what I’ve read, and heard from acquaintances who work there, most of the money I give them is being put to direct use.

-- Brad Hurley  

[We asked our readers what cool tools they are giving to their friends and families this year. Here is one in a series this week of suggested gifts mentioned in the comments that we are highlighting on the front page. Submit your own recommendation in the comments. -- ES]


The tools we’re building to find, aggregate and consume tailored, filtered and hyperlocalized information are still nascent. My motto: register for everything, see what sticks. In the last few months, I’ve been hooked to EveryBlock, which lets you dive deep via street address and zip code, or pull back for city-wide look. The amount of data that’s fine-sliced by location, neighborhood and zip code is just amazing. Beyond mentions of specific hoods in the mainstream media or blogs (including Yelp restaurant reviews), what EveryBlock does really well is provide a user-friendly, easy-to-digest interface for exploring public records: every building permit, restaurant inspection, police call, zoning agenda item and more. You can hone searches from a one- to eight-block radius around a particular address. And you can set daily/weekly email alerts, as well (I prefer a weekly update, but search via the site now and again).

There are handful of news-y aggregators like Placeblogger (which I’ve not tried) and Outside.In (which I enjoy). Much like the previously-reviewed PopUrls, Outside.In gives you one place to go (or email/RSS) to monitor a variety of outlets — in this case location-specific “news, views and conversations” slotted into categories like food, music, real estate. Good stuff, but a little different. With EveryBlock, you get the actual public records, which tend to provide the most interesting tidbits, for me at least. In addition to suspicious people alerts, car break-ins and violent crimes, I discovered a person on my block is intending to tear down a one-story, single-family home and build a four-story condo — yuck! (Beware: you really can spend hours with all this data.)


The only catch: EveryBlock is only available in 11 cities (as I write), but more are certainly on the way. If you’re using any similar sites/services you love — especially those covering areas EveryBlock does not — please tell us about them in the comments below.

-- Steven Leckart  

Wikipedia: The Missing Manual

Just because anyone can edit Wikipedia doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sure, you can edit anonymously and say anything you like, but if you want to make edits that last and if you want to participate in a meaningful way that complies with community guidelines, well, there’s a lot to learn. Guidelines can be hard to find on the site, and for better or worse, they’re always evolving.

As the pull-quote on the cover of this book indicates, Cool Tools has previously-recommended other Missing Manuals from O’Reilly. Like the other books in the series, Wikipedia: The Missing Manual is logically structured, includes lots of screen-shots, and is infinitely skimmable. A great introduction and a handy reference, the manual starts out with the basics: editing, creating articles and maintaining them (yes, that’s just the start). More advanced topics include collaboration, advanced formatting, broader site structure, and interface customization.

Documentation at the website is not particularly searchable given the site’s relatively simplistic one-box-fits-all search interface; browsing through documentation and discussion can be difficult and, frankly, overwhelming. In addition to the quite readable, cover to cover flow, the book has a comprehensive index that allows for quick navigation that delivers precise answers to the myriad questions that inevitably arise, especially when you’re just getting familiar with this medium.

Make no mistake, community consensus is always the last (ever-changing) word. But John Broughton, who has also overseen the Editor’s Index to Wikipedia project, can help you ease into editing without committing any major blunders.

-- Camille Cloutier  

[Update: O'Reilly recently announced that the Manual has been migrated to Wikipedia. Checkout the dynamic incarnation at Help:Wikipedia: The Missing Manual .]

Wikipedia: The Missing Manual
John Broughton
2008, 502 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Wikipedia’s rate of change has presented a challenge in writing this book. It’s as current as it can be, but if you notice that a screenshot isn’t exactly the way Wikipedia appears to you on screen, the something (minor) has changed since just before this book was published. You will see mentions in a number of places in the book about where change may be just around the corner (a WYSISYG edit box, threaded discussions on talk pages, single sign-in across all Foundation projects, and more). These changes could happen just as you’re reading this book, or not for a year or two.

Nevertheless, you’ll find the core of Wikipedia changes very slowly–after all, it does have an established base of active editors, and a history of success that makes editors reluctant to chance processes that aren’t considered broken. So the changes that aren’t covered by this book won’t prevent you from gaining great Wikipedia editing skills.

You don’t need to know everything about Wikipedia to edit an article. Wikipedia has literally hundreds of pages of policy, guidelines, and how-to information on topics such as capitalization, categorization, citations, copyrights, disclaimers, foreign language characters, headings, indentation, links, lists, neutrality, pronunciation, quotations, tags, and templates, to name just a few. If you don’t get something exactly right, don’t worry–no one else gets everything right every time either.

You don’t need to know everything about your subject to edit an article. If you add something that’s constructive and 90-percent right, that’s far better than not doing an edit at all. As in sports, you don’t need to hit a home run or score a goal on every play to be a valuable contributor. If you don’t get something exactly right, someone else is likely to come along and help by fixing or finishing it.

You can contribute without editing at all. if you see a problem in an article, but you don’t (yet) know how to fix it, or you do know how to fix it, but you can’t edit the article (some articles are fully protected, typically for short periods of time), you can still help by posting a constructive comment on the article’s talk (discussion) page. If you don’t want to or can’t edit an article directly, you can still help to improve it.

A second role of WikiProjects is to maintain portals, mini-Main pages which are entry points for particular topics. … Note: If you want to search for text or information on a portal page, you need to modify your search to include the namespace Portal, because the normal Wikipedia search is only for information on article pages (pages in the Main namespace). You can do this by modifying your search on the Wikipedia search page by checking the box for the Portal namespace, after doing an initial search to get to the main search page. Another is to change your preference sos that your searches automatically include both mainspace and portalspace.



The phrase “For factual and other kinds of questions” means that the Help desk is not the place to look for information contained in encyclopedia articles. For questions like, “How long do butterflies live?” use the search box to find the article Butterfly, which probably contains the answer.

Some questions aren’t answered in articles because they’re not really encyclopedic, like “What’s a good camera to buy for someone who wants to be a professional photographer?” Take those questions to the Rference desk (shortcut: WP:R), which is similar to a librarian service (and another place to put your question-answering expertise to good use).

What you see in the Wikipedia window in front of you isn’t fixed in concrete. Wikipedia has a surprising number of ways that you can modify its appearance when you view it. If you’re a registered editor, you have a My Preferences page, where you can change a number of settings that control how Wikipedia’s pages look on your screen.

In late 2007, Wikipedia added a new, eleventh tab to the My Preferences page– the Gadgets tab. … The Gadgets tab lets you quickly implement JavaScript user scripts developed by other editors to add cool new features to Wikipedia. Chapter 21 describes how to implement JavaScript user scripts by copying them to a page in your userspace. Using the Gadgets tab is much easier; just select a gadget, and then click Save. Then, as the instructions at the bottom of the tab say, bypass your browser cache to see the gadget’s effects. … You can get more information about each item on the Gadgets tab by looking at the Special:Gadgets page.


Big crowds are potential incarnate. They’re exciting, frightening and transformative — often simultaneously. This photo-driven book surveys an extensive range of events, happenings, densely-populated locales and visually-arresting traditions throughout the world, from the deeply spiritual to the culturally eccentric. Included are the Kumbh Mela in India, the Tomatina Festival in Spain and Nascar. The book also features interviews with figures like Muhammad Ali (re: the Olympics), developer Steve Wynn (re: Las Vegas) and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte (re: circus/street performance). If you’re heading to Burning Man, this will get you in the mindset. If you’re not heading to Burning Man, this could motivate you to turn out for 2008.

[Disclosure: This book features an interview with Kevin Kelly, publisher of Cool Tools. He did not give me the book or suggest I cover it. -- SL]

David Rockwell & Bruce Mau
2006, 256 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:


Brussels Flower Carpet

Running of the Bulls (Spain)

Kumbh Mela (India)

Ritual Bathing (India)