Cool Tools’ Holiday Gift Guide


Written by you.

Here’s how. In the comments of this entry describe a cool tool you are giving as a gift this year. To a family-member, co-worker, or friend. It can be a previously reviewed Cool Tool, or even better, a new one we don’t know about. We’ll comb through the submissions in a week or so and then highlight the best of suggestions collected into a full-fledge roundup on the front page.

So what cool tool are you planning to share with others? And why? It can be anything useful (and, okay, even playful). Keep it real. Bonus points for including a link.

-- KK  


Malware issues and site maintenance

Thanks to all of our readers who have written in to notify us about malware warnings that the site has prompted in the past couple days. I wanted to update you that the malware was all removed by Thursday afternoon, although it took a bit longer for the warning messages to come down.

Please accept my apologies for not publishing this notice sooner. When we discovered the issue, we immediately and completely locked down site publishing for the clean-up and initial diagnosis, hence the silence on our end. I do want to address a couple of specific concerns you may have. The malware that the hackers injected onto the site was located in an invisible link — this is not something you could have accidentally “clicked on.” So visiting Cool Tools would not put you in any danger of malware. The reason these folks embed links in high-traffic sites like this in order to get higher page ranks from Google. Second, our sys admin has tested the site extensively on multiple machines, both Windows and OSX — all of our machines remain uninfected.

We’re continuing site updates this weekend and should be back to a normal publishing schedule Monday morning. You may notice some lag time in comment publication until then. Please accept our sincere apologies for the inconvenience, and our thanks and appreciation for your concern.

— CC



Hack Alert

We are aware that some visitors to Cool Tools today encountered a warning that this site had a link to a malware site. Last night the site was hacked into and a link to a malware site was inserted into the source code of the pages. We’ve cleaned it up, and have repaired the breach and are working on making the site more secure. I apologize for the inconvenience. We are now back to your regular scheduled cool tool of the day. Thanks to those who sent messages alerting us of the trouble.

— KK



Newest New Cool Editor

It was a mighty fine experiment: Take an original fast-forward science fiction writer, who has been subscribing to Cool Tools from day one (before it was a blog), who edited the final issue of the Whole Earth Catalog’s zine (the original model for Cool Tools), and who had worked with me many times before (appearing on the cover of the first issue of our zine Wired) — take this fellow and turn his creative mind towards the utilitarian workaday routine of Cool Tools. That was the idea a month ago in hiring Bruce Sterling as editor of Cool Tools.

Well, that fine experiment did not work out. Bruce Sterling is retiring from his very energetic stint as Cool Tools editor. Some kind of personality mismatch. These things are always mysterious, even when they work. No big deal. Only thing is to move on. I am really looking forward to working with Bruce again because if you want “think different”, if you want true originality, street level honesty, entertaining insight, and a remarkable stylist, Bruce Sterling is your guy. Really. I learn something from Sterling in every encounter with him, and I am easily bored. Sterling has never bored me.

Cool Tools is boring in that workaday jeans and boots sort of way. Utilitarian. WYSIWYG. No “skins.” So we are going to stick to our workaday useful ways. The newest new Cool Tool editor, Elon Schoenholz, is not boring but not flashy either. Elon was one of the 200 candidates rounded up in the casting call last month. He has experience as a editor and reviewer at Consumer Guide, Mountain Bike magazine, a weekly paper, and is currently a professional architectural photographer. His home site is here.

As always, most of the reviews on this site are written by readers (and every one of them by actual users). This site is only as good as the material that flows into it. The job of Elon, or Bruce, or Steven, or Charles, or myself, is only to sift, edit, tidy up, and to head off misunderstanding before the review is posted. Send Elon a rave about your favorite cool tool; address to elon at schoenholz dot c o m.

To reiterate what is wanted:

Cool Tools publishes only positive reviews of stuff that works. We love tried and true tools, rather than flimsy and faddish gadgets that only look good on the screen. A cool tool…

1) Is not commonly known, or if known, not appreciated for this particular use.

2) Really works over a long time period.

3) Is significantly better than the competition.

4) Assists individuals (verses institutions) in self-empowerment and self-learning.

5) Is not one you’ve invented, sell, or promote.

The ideal Cool Tool review begins: “Over the years I’ve tried dozens of tools to accomplish X, but this one is by far the best thing. After using this tool every day for 2 years, it continues to amaze me. The problem it solves for non-professionals is this…” and it goes on to say why this item is so wonderful compared to other choices.


Tips 24

Spray-On Cooking Oil As Expedient Wetsuit Remover

As a triathlete, I practice the transition during every training session, meaning I try to remove my wetsuit in super fast time.

Every Friday last summer I swam in a lake in my Promotion triathlon wetsuit. I spent the whole summer struggling to get off my wetsuit. I tried slopping some water down the front before getting out of the water, Superglide and all kinds of things. My Ironman friend swears by Pam Spray On Cooking Oil. He’s used it for 17 years and has had no damage to his wetsuits. You can’t buy Pam in the UK (at least not cheaply). All I could find was Frys spray on oil. I bought a pump-action one since this is more eco-friendly.

I got to the lake one Friday and sprayed a generous coating on my legs. I was sure the oil would come off during my hour-long swim so I didn’t really expect it to work. As I clambered out of the water I unzipped my wetsuit, ripped it down to my waist and then pulled it off my legs. I couldn’t believe how effective this is. Triathletes normally try to pull a wetsuit down enough that they can tred on it to pull the rest of it off. I hadn’t managed to do this all summer, but on my first attempt using cooking oil, I was instantly able to get the wetsuit down. Absolutely perfect!

— Carl Myhill

Chopsticks for Whisking

On one of my trips to Asia, I noticed an omelet chef at breakfast using a pair of chopsticks to whisk the eggs. Since then, I have kept several pairs of good quality chopsticks in my kitchen for whisking and stirring jobs where a traditional balloon whisk is simply too big and can’t get into the container’s corners, or if the pot does not have a rounded bottom. Simply grasp the chopsticks together as if they were a pair of pencils; hold towards the thick end. For more whisking power, slightly separate the two thin ends. As with a balloon whisk, most of the power should come from moving your forearm from the elbow, with your wrist providing a whip-like follow through. — Aryeh Abramovitz

Tie Wraps in a Bike Repair Kit

I would strongly suggest adding tie-wraps or zip ties to any bicycle repair set. They can hold a whole lot of things in place when screws get lost… I’m speaking here as an avid cyclist (I do about 2 to 3000 kilometers every year, most in vacations). — Michiel Kemeling

Prevent Flat Bike/Motorcycle Tires

Here’s an easier way to flat-proof your bicycle: make a flap of stiff plastic that extends in front of the back wheel until it nearly touches the pavement. Then glue or rivet a rubber flap to the lower edge that brushes against the pavement. A bleach bottle is a particularly good source of plastic since you can gain some stiffness from curve to the neck, and depending on your bicycle design, you might even profit from the neck itself. I learned this many years ago when I was a motorcycle mechanic and discovered that perhaps 90 percent of all flats are on the back wheel. The reason: the front wheel stands the object up, the back wheel runs into it. All the flap does is knock the object back down, and that’s all that’s necessary. I put one these on my motorcycles and have never again had a flat in more than thirty years and hundreds of thousands of miles of riding. I put them on my bicycles too, and never have flats. — Bill Babcock

Quick Ways To Open a Shrinkwrapped CD

I got my start writing about music, so I received review copies of a lot of CDs. Since the days of physical, shrinkwrapped CDs are numbered, I feel compelled to share the two solutions I picked up. 1) To cut the shrinkwrap, vigorously rub one side of the disc on the corner or leg of a desk (preferably a metal one). Don’t rub the face of the case, otherwise you’ll scratch it. 2) To remove the barcode sticker binding the edge of the case: pry open the case at the hinges, then use the leverage to pull the sticker off in one long, quick movement.

These are so simple, I was able to do both in a minute with my left hand (I’m right-handed).

— Steven Leckart

Shrinkwrap removal…

Sticker removal…


Related Items
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Cool Tool Comments

All of you 220,000 RSS subscribers to COOL TOOLS should detect little difference, but all of you 450,000 unique visitors to the website should notice a redesign. This new layout tweak piggybacks on an upgrade to the Movable Type blogging software undergirding this site. Because of this upgrade we now have user comments available for each cool tool. Click on the blue COMMENTS button at the bottom of each review to see the comments so far, or to add yours. Yes, please add yours. We’ll be moderating comments closely to be sure they are constructive. This is your chance to add your own experience, positive or negative, to the usual COOL TOOLS rave.

The new design also makes it easier to access the 5 year’s worth of previous reviews on the site. We’ve devised a visual grid which should allow you to browse the back list quickly and smartly. Clicking on a category on the left hand list (in gray) will bring you to the grid.

If you prefer to see more of them in abbreviated form, click on the LIST view in the upper right. Or if you want to systematically study the archives in full-review mode, as one long scroll, click on the FULL view. (Currently, not all the thumbnails of past items have been upgraded and imported into the new design. That should happen soon. In the meantime they are rendered as gray boxes.) You can also choose to view the archives chronologically. The monthly pages permit the same three views: GRID, LIST and FULL.

COOL TOOLS’ new design was created by Thomas Marban. Thomas is the genius behind Popurls, which, for the past two years, has been and continues to be the first website I visit each morning. In a previous review I raved about Popurl’s fantastic dashboard for blogosphere. It is a meta-aggregator; it aggregates the blog aggregators. On one big page you can skim over what the major blogs are saying, and dip deeper with a mouse-over, or click on it for the actual story. It is much much faster than any  RSS reader. You can scan the major blogs in about 5 minutes. Marban’s Popurls was the inspiration for many imitators, including Guy Kawasaki’s AllTop, but Popurls is much more useful because it remains a well-design one page. So well-designed in fact that I asked Thomas to re-design COOL TOOLS. Besides the two improvements I mentioned, there are others sprinkled through the site. Like any redesign there are some implementation bugs; if you find one, let me know. Marban is now innovating other cool tools, which are worth inspecting.

Putting Marban’s design into code was the job of MT-master Wayne Bremser. It’s not easy overhauling a ship while it is still cruising, but that is what upgrading and redesigning a large 5-year-old blog site with no down time is like. Wayne is an ace programmer and designer himself. I recommend him highly.

Finally, we encountered some security issues in our site during the upgrade. There was a weird hack that was scary because even after inspecting the logs we had no idea how the leeches got in. It was very subtle. No one would see anything amiss in COOL TOOLS unless you googled a few common spam words. Then you’d see a parasitic page on our site that was pirating our Google-juice. We had deep parasites and we didn’t even know it. Anyway, turns out when you have this kind of disease you need a specialist. Tony Hansmann is a UNIX security expert, who came, looked, saw, and made a few very select, very deliberate moves and sealed the holes. It was like watching a judo black belt make the exact minimal essential stroke. Or a doctor diagnosing the site’s health. He can do a lot of other esoteric high-end cures, but Hansmann is basically a website doctor.  Also highly recommended.

All the while Camille Cloutier made sure each day’s review was up and in good order. I am constantly amazed at the amount of energy required to keep an active blog site going. It’s like tending a zoo or garden. Not a day goes by that something falters, breaks, needs an upgrade, or tweaking, or some kind of attention.  Doing nothing is not an option because the world moves around us. New versions of browsers, no versions of readers, new gadgets, new features all require us to keep working on the site. Let us know how we can make it better.



Gratitude Loop

I got this great tip from marketing innovator Seth Godin. I think its a good one for anyone putting on a conference or large meeting. Like Seth, I attend many conferences and the time and manner in which the organizers are thanked is not effective or efficient. Seth has a small improvement I plan to adopt:

Approximately 5% of the official welcome speech consists of a litany of thanks. The list is impossible to remember, said too fast and dull. Not only is this a total waste of time for most attendees, it doesn’t even satisfy the core objective, which is thanking and rewarding the folks who helped. And it certainly doesn’t encourage others to look forward to helping out.

The solution is pretty simple, thanks to Powerpoint and digital cameras.

Prepare for the talk by taking pictures of each person. If they’re shy, you can even do photographs in groups of two or three. Good photos, clever photos, funny photos… photos that are interesting are best.

Then, create a new presentation. Put each photo on its own slide, preferably with a well designed ID below it (it should be on a black box, with a nice sans serif font reversed out. Like you see on cable TV news.)

String one after the other. Build a dissolve transition between each one. Program it to put up a new slide every two seconds–don’t go too slow!–and to loop the presentation.

Ten minutes before you’re due to start, while everyone is finding their seats, run the presentation. It’ll cycle 5 or 10 times before you start speaking. When you get up, start your presentation and just dive into the meaty stuff.

Every single person you feature will be famous! “Hey, I saw you in that loop!”

And you won’t have wasted your valuable presentation time.

— from Seth’s Blog by Seth Godin


Mac Laptop Power Cord Tip


Every Mac comes with a long, bulky power cord and a small 2-prong nub. You can interchange them, but both are far from optimal for travel and field work (i.e. conference/convention blogging). Here’s my fix: use a power cord from a Sony PlayStation. There are other cords that will also fit into the Mac power brick, but the PlayStation cord is easy to find. Where the Mac power cord is too thick to easily coil or toss in a bag — and has a ground prong* so it’s limited to those types of AC outlets — the PlayStation cord is ostensibly perfect. It fits into the Mac power brick, coils up nice and small and has two prongs. Plus, you can leave your giant Mac cord at your desk back home and don’t have to deal with dust bunnies every time you get ready to go out the door. I always keep one PlayStation cable stashed in my bag, so I only have to transfer the brick to the bag. This trick’s good for any Mac laptop from the last 4-5 years, I’d guess, if not longer. In the last four years, I’ve used it on a 12 inch PowerBook, 13 inch MacBook, MacBook air and 2 MacBook pros. There used to be a video game where you had to fit shapes into brackets before an entire rig blows up. Can’t remember what it’s called, but that mindset is kind of how I first recognized the shape on the Mac plug.

— Brian Lam

*NOTE: using a ground prong is a safety precaution; although it’s generally not advisable to switch to a two-prong, this has worked fine for me for years and if you’re in a pinch, I highly recommend it.


Sony PlayStation Power Cord
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Sony

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:

Tips for Conference Bloggers

Mac OSX: The Missing Manual




Anniversary for Your Editor

Although my name sits above, someone else has been editing Cool Tools for the past 12 months. Steven Leckart has been coordinating and selecting the reader-written reviews, editing them into clarity, double-checking the purchasing information and scouting out the related items (his idea, too).  Readers of the blog probably haven’t noticed him, because of this back-stage position.  In fact, I’ve only met Steven in person once myself, for 5 minutes in passing; as in the age of the internet, everything is done remotely from our homes. Readers of the weekly email version of Cool Tools (you can sign up here) do see him because the emails come from him, rather than me.

Visible or not, there is more work than appears in keeping this site simple, reliable, efficient and clear. My goal has always been to provide direct recommendations of great stuff, without a lot of distracting noise. Steven has done this with flair and quiet professionalism. He is much more thorough and diligent than I ever was. His day job is a freelance writer, researcher and fact-checker for Wired.

This week is the one year anniversary for Editor Leckart. Would you give him a round of applause, along with a recommendation for great tool that you love (hint hint)? Cool Tools runs on the enthusiasm of readers like you.

He is steveleckart gmail com.



Tips 23

White Vinegar vs. Toilet Bowl Rings

This is a tip in response to the pumice scourer. I used to scrub fruitlessly at toilet bowl rings until one day I tried pouring in some white vinegar (maybe a cup or two) and leaving it overnight. Everything came off in about a minute after that. I use a standard toilet brush and find the stains/deposits come off with very little effort, sometimes after leaving the vinegar in just for 20 minutes. I got the idea from the fact that vinegar is a mild acid and that it seems to be the main ingredient of most homemade ecological cleaning recipes out there. Been doing it for a couple of years, no effect to the porcelain that I can see.

— Jeff Lindberg

Rubberbanded Pliers

For a small vice for doing quick fiddly work, I use a pair of pliers with an elastic band wrapped around the handles. Adjust the tension by wrapping the band round more or less times. You can use them as a clamp so both your hands are free, or you can leave gluing things to dry. I learned a variety of elastic band tricks when working as a theatre lighting tech. They’re also great for temporarily attaching cables to lighting rigs by looping them around the bar and cable then looping the tail end of the band around the dowel (used a lot of electricity tape prior to being shown this). It has always seemed to me the less tools you use, the more familiar you become with them and the more uses you find for them.

— Sam Henderson

Plastic Bag Epoxy Mixer

When you need to get some epoxy in a very small space, or don’t have room to make a mess around what your gluing, try squeezing the product into one corner of a heavy plastic bag. Mix it in the corner between your fingers. Then cut the corner of the bag to size and apply it where it’s needed — pastry bag style. First saw this tip in “Fine Homebuilding,” which recommended using it to mix color pigment into calking.

— Michael Visnick

Plastic Stretch Wrap Packing

If you are moving yourself, you don’t need boxes for most non-fragile items such as books. Just stack the books, wind some stretch wrap around them, and you’re done. This is a cheap, quick option and since the wrap is transparent, you can see what you’ve got — a very useful feature when you have not yet unpacked but you need to find something. I even use stretch wrap to contain and protect clothes on hangers. When you unpack, you cut off the stretch wrap, and there’s virtually nothing to throw away (no empty-box disposal problem).

— Charles Platt