Ask Cool Tools Unanswered Questions #3

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From trash cans to desk chairs, this week’s set of unanswered questions covers the gamut.

What’s the best inexpensive desk chair? Are there good alternatives besides standing?

Is there a really great microscope that can easily take and display pictures for a classroom setting?

How do I get ink out of my clothes?

What’s the best home safe for storing valuables? What should I consider?

Where can I find a solid raccoon-proof trash can?

Do you have a question you need answered? Drop by Ask Cool Tools!


Take a Nap! Change Your Life

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Napping is a evolutionarily habit that still works wonders today. I can get by with several hours less sleep per night by adding a 20-minute nap in the afternoon. But I work at home where napping is easily done. The point of this book is to persuade you that the benefits of napping, scientifically derived, are so great you should do everything you can to make napping a habit whatever your schedule. As this concise guide makes clear the benefits to nappers are significant: smarter, more productive, healthier. For those who have tried napping without success, this book offers several different methods to try. It is hard to imagine the siesta returning in full force in the workplace, but it should be resurrected in some fashion. Start here. This is the best practical book on naps yet.

-- KK  

Take a Nap! Change Your Life
Sara C. Mednick, Ph.D.
2006, 141 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

It’s free, it’s nontoxic and it has no dangerous side effects. Hard to believe, with these powerful selling points, that people have to be convinced to nap. But alas, for way too long, napping has been given a bad rap.


I’m often asked if a nap during the day will interfere with nocturnal sleep. The answer is a definite no. Unfortunately, many information sources on sleep hygiene encourage people to avoid napping if they’re having trouble sleeping at night. Not only is there not a shred of evidence to support this advice, but much of the data coming out of sleep research demonstrates quite the opposite. In studies across all age ranges, nocturnal sleep duration has been proven to be unaffected by midday napping. As a matter of fact, studies indicate that in a number of cases napping actually improves the ability to sleep at night.

As a rule of thumb, you can count on naps earlier in the day to be richer in REM, while late afternoon naps tend to be higher in SWS. If you take particular interest in your dreams, waking up during or right after a heavy REM episode will allow you the greatest recall of your dream imagery. If you feel like one of “the walking tired,” a heavy SWS does will take care of that.


It bears repeating: There’s no such thing as a bad nap. Any time you spend in midday sleep will reduce the effects of fatigue and bestow benefits. But our nap needs differ across populations and will change over the course of our lives. A mother’s requirement is not the same as that of her three-year-old toddler. The sleep profile of a middle-aged football coach had little in common with that of a teenage beauty contestant.


“Who’s got time to nap?” is a common complaint among non-nappers. The short answer is: just about everyone. if you spend 20 minutes or more at Starbucks getting an afternoon mocha latte, couldn’t you just stay where you are and take a nap instead? So, before you conclude that napping doesn’t fit into your busy life, take out your day planner and examine your schedule. By carefully reviewing the activities of your day and the time it takes to do them, you can assess which time expenditures are unnecessary and where a nap can be substituted. How long is your lunch? A paralegal with an hour lunch break reports that she can eat in half an hour and keep the second half for her nap. Or do what I do and pencil in 20 to 40 minutes as soon as your get home for a transition nap between work and leisure.

Once you’ve carved out these precious minutes, you need to make this nap time a regular feature of your day. Just as we’ve developed a detailed trail of cues for our minds and bodies to recognize that it’s time for nighttime sleep, we need to fashion a similar set of cues that will indicate that it’s nap time. Consistent scheduling allows the body to associate that hour with the nap and all other concerns to more easily fade away.


“If I nap I’m being lazy.”

Some of the most hardworking figures in history–national leaders, scientists, CEOs, movie stars–have used napping as a tool to get more out of each day. As demonstrated by the latest brain imaging technology, your mind is still at work even if your body is at rest.

Replace with: “Napping makes me more productive.”

“I’m too busy to nap.”

Just look around your office at 3 p.m. More than likely, instead of a hive of industrious activity, you’ll see a bunch of bleary-eyed workers checking and rechecking their e-mail. As the great napper Winston Churchill said, “Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one… well, at least one and half.” The latest scientific research has proven him correct.

Replace with: “I’m so busy, I need to nap.”

“I haven’t done enough to deserve a nap.”

Do you deserve to eat? To breathe? No natural function–including napping!–should be regarded as a privilege. Stop cheating yourself.

Replace with: “I’m exercising my inalienable right to nap.”

“I can’t get anything out of a 20-minute nap, so why bother?”

You can reap benefits in as little as five minutes. Naps under 20 minutes can increase alertness, improve physical dexterity, boost stamina and lower stress. Post-lunch naps of 15 minutes have been shown in university studies to increase alertness and performance.

Replace with: “In less than 20 minutes, I will restore my alertness for the rest of the day.”

Maglite/Niteize LED Upgrade


I’ve always had Maglite flashlights, as I appreciate the way they are built. While at the checkout stand at my favorite big-box home improvement store recently, I saw a blister pack containing the NiteIze LED Upgrade Combo II for Mini Maglite AA cell flashlights. I figured “What the heck, it’s under $10, it’s worth trying.”

Upon getting the package open and laying the parts out I realized it was fairly simple surgery to upgrade my Mini MagLight. You just swap the end cap for the new button, unscrew the head unit, swap the tiny bulb for the LED module, swap reflectors, and put the head unit back on.

Don’t do what I did. Upon getting the bulb in, I hit the button on the end of the Mini Maglight while looking right at the bulb, and was fairly blinded by the intense white light. You do need to test it to make sure you don’t have + and – mixed up on the LED leads (doesn’t matter on a standard bulb.)

The company says that the upgraded Mini Maglite will project to 40 meters, and the batteries are now good for up to 25 hours of use. I’m not sure about the use, but it definitely does throw out a lot more light, and I’ll be upgrading all of the Maglites in my house.

(Note that NiteIze states that this upgrade voids the warranty on the Mini-Maglite, but the upgrade for the C&D cell variants of Maglites are just a bulb-swap, and there is no such language on the NiteIze website.)

-- Kent Dyer  

Niteize 1-Watt LED Upgrade for Mini-Maglite

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Niteize

Tree Houses

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Tree houses are impractically romantic. There is no one book on how to make this recurring romance as practical as possible, but these two books by Peter Nelson contain the best suggestions and useful advice for building a real live-in tree house I’ve seen so far. The Treehouse Book has lots of fabulous examples in the US and a few chapters on how-to. His follow-up book, New Treehouses of the World, gathers inspirational examples from Thailand, New Zealand and other spots with tree-house culture, and has a short chapter on new tree-house technology. Main thing to remember when building a tree house is that trees move, over minutes and years. It’s closer to building a boat in the air. That’s why there’s plenty ideas in these books for any small house, even those not arboreal.

– KK

The Treehouse Book
Peter and Judy Nelson with David Larkin
2000, 224 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

Sweet Birch — A strong tree with shiny, waterproof bark that used to be stripped off for wintergreen or birch beer. Use in a group.

70′ high — spread 50′



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New Treehouses of the World
Pete Nelson
2009, 223 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

Trees in the northwest grow surprising quickly, so I prefer a GL (Garnier Limb) with a longer stem, the part of the GL that sticks out from the tree. While trees grow taller only at their tips, they grow in girth all long their length. As a tree puts on rings it envelops the GL, making the artificial limb even stronger. The tree will eventually push a beam out along the stem of the GL (the reason I prefer a longer stem) in much the same way the tree’s roots might lift a heavy concrete sidewalk.

A “heavy limb,” also designed by Greewood, holds up a bucket-style bracket attached to a large glue-laminated beam. There are numerous styles of artificial limbs, or tree anchor bolts (TABs).

An elegant platform takes shape around the old-growth Sitka spruce. Occasionally a tree will resist a building project, but this magnificent specimen remained calm and allowed us to proceed without protest.



Last Pass

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Password strength has been a topic about the Internet lately. I have seen lots of clever methods for generating and remembering strong passwords. Some are better than others, but IMO, none are adequate. Here’s the problem: It doesn’t matter how strong your passwords are if you use the same one on multiple sites. All it takes is for a site to get hacked, like Gawker media, or even Sony did, and now your super-strong password has been compromised, and every site on which you used that password has been accessed.

So, the bottom line is that no matter how strong your passwords are, and no matter what clever tricks you use to help you remember them, if you’re like the average Internet denizen, you have way too many logins for you to remember a unique password for every site. And that means that the only truly secure password system is one that remembers them for you.

Enter LastPass. It’s not the only password manager out there, but I like it the best. You create ONE strong password that you have to memorize and use it to access your LastPass database. The LastPass database is stored online, on LastPass’s servers, and is accessed either via HTTPS, via a browser plugin, or via an app on your smart-phone. If you use the browser plugin, logging into sites is seamless: LastPass recognizes the site you’re on and automatically logs you in (after, optionally, asking you to re-enter your master password). LastPass also has automatic form fill and automatic password generation. This means that you can have a different, unique, very strong password for every site you log into, but you only have to remember one master password. It’s the best of both worlds.

One argument against LastPass is that if their database is compromised, then all of your sites are compromised, and that’s true, but given that their entire line of work is keeping that information safe, I’m willing to take that chance. The alternative is rolling dice or picking phrases to create passwords, writing all of them down on a piece of paper or something, and then having to manually type them in when I go to a site. A clunky mess.

There is a free version of LastPass, with some additional features unlocked if you pay a $12 a year subscription.

-- Joshua Bardwell  

Last Pass
Free, or $12/year for added features

Accusharp Knife Sharpener


One Amazon reviewer called it the “sharpening tool of the century.” I won’t argue. My knives have been getting progressively duller over the years but I’m not about to try to sharpen them myself with a stone, nor am I taking them in anytime soon for expensive professional sharpening. I’ve been content to use them as they are. Then I came upon the Accu-Sharp somewhere and read the Amazon Reviews and decided to pony up $9.10 for one.

Amazing would be an understatement for the ease of use once I figured out I was doing it backwards. I cannot recommend this tool highly enough after seeing the results obtained from a few swipes of the device along the blade. There are probably many who would tell me how I’m wrecking my knives (Henckels 5-Star) by using a $10 sharpener, but you know what? There’s an Arab proverb for that: “The dogs bark, but the caravans move on.”

Joe Stirt

After reading Joe’s review I ended up ordering an Accusharp to see if I could magically improve my inherited collection of dulled knives. Some of these knives had so little edge that they would turn tomatoes into a mushy watery mess on a cutting board.

After a few swipes with the Accusharp I could cut tomatoes into perfect slices, and it took a measly 15-minutes to clean up the edge on almost every knife I own (it even worked on my breadknife!).

The sharpener is a simple device built around two pieces of carbide that form a “V” in a plastic handle that when run along a blade shaves the edge to a sharpened point. Unlike a whetstone, the carbide pieces will eventually wear away and lose their ability to produce an edge, but the Accusharp is designed so that the carbide can be flipped or replaced. I’ve had mine for three-months and see no sign of wear, and Amazon reviewers say that they get a few years of sharpening before they need to replace the carbide.

For $10, this sharpener was able to rejuvenate most knives in my kitchen. The few it couldn’t sharpen were blades that had been bent or misshapen beyond simple repair.

-- Oliver Hulland  

AccuSharp Knife Sharpener

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Accusharp

In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats

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The advantages of having an extra place for guests or relatives to stay are pretty obvious. And more so today as parents live longer, kids remain at home after graduating, and renting a unit helps your paycheck. But actually building an in-law, granny flat, or guest studio on your property is neither easy nor obvious. I know from the experience of building two different in-law apartments in our homes that the design, permitting, and construction hurdles are serious. This book is chock full of very practical tips, great advice, and plenty of real world examples. Because in-laws, converted garages and guest cottages, are by definition small and compact, you’ll need the kind of efficient design tips offered here. I can’t think of a similar or better source of help that would be useful from the moment you start fantasizing about adding a second unit, till you apply for permits (or not), and finish the last coat of paint. And BTW, if you ever dream about building your own house, even with hired hands, adding an in-law is a great way to practice your contracting skills.

-- KK  

In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats
Michael Litchfield
2011, 218 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Bump-outs have great appeal because they conserve yard space and, because they adjoin the house, there’s one less wall to build. If you want to create a living space for an elderly parent or a caregiver, they’ll be right on the other side of the wall.

Carve-outs are even more intimate. Created by carving out a suite of rooms within a house, they are the least expensive and least disruptive type of in-law to build. Close off an interior door or two, add soundproofing, install a kitchenette, and, voila, a second home.

Living in an attic in-law can be a great adventure for the right person. Sloping roofs, skylights, quirky nooks, and long views create an inherently romantic, cozy living space. Because of the stairs involved, though, such units are probably best suited to a younger person, or at least someone with strong legs and a good back.

Most municipalities will allow you to convert an old garage to another use. But often you must first create new parking spots to replace the ones lost by the conversion.


When there’s a living space above a garage, getting the details right is important for health and safety. Your local building authority has the final say, but the following tips can help make your unit a safer, more pleasant place to be:

Install fire-resistant (Type X) drywall on garage walls and ceilings. The thicker the panel, the higher its fire rating; a thickness of 5/8 in. is often specified. On walls and ceilings between a garage and living space, fire codes may require two layers of Type X drywall.

Spray insulation is a good choice to insulate the floors of in-law units over garages. It seals cracks and effectively deadens the transmission of sound.
Install a motion-sensor exhaust system to clear the garage of noxious fumes. Typically an exhaust fan starts when a car pulls in or out, and runs until a timer switch shuts it off.

Older people appreciate the lack of steps going from indoors to outdoors, but completely flat and level surfaces aren’t’ ideal. Place patios at least 2 to 3 in. below the level of interior floors. Otherwise, water collecting on the patio could run inside the house and cause water damage. In addition, slope patios gently away from the building at a rate of 1/16 in. to 1/8 in. per lineal foot so they’ll drain properly.

To enable occupants to exit quickly in case of a fire, building codes require a method of escape–egress–for sleeping rooms on every level of the house, including the basement. Because egress windows must also be large enough to allow a fully equipped firefighter to enter, codes specify the size of the egress – typically at least 20 in. wide and at least 24 in. tall, with a combined net-clear opening of at least 5.7 sq. ft.

To make it possible to clim out of an egress window, codes generally specify a maximum sill height of 44 in. above the floor, although a 32-in. sill height seems more reasonable if there are kids or elders present. (Check your local codes; some require two egress points for basement in-laws.) Installing an egress window in a concrete foundation all is a job for a pro and may require the installation of an egress well.
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arrow See another excerpt

Icebreaker GT Wool Running Gear


Synthetic exercise clothes have a tendency to get funky after a day or two. They require that you either wash them frequently, or own several pairs. Fed up with the smell and the burden of having to frequently wash my exercise gear several times a week I decided to pick up merino wool running shorts and running vest. After nearly 6-months of use, I doubt I’ll ever go back.

I now wear my running clothes for up to a week before I detect any funk, and when it does smell it tends to be a “wet sheep” aroma; a far cry better than the locker room reek I had been accustomed to. Additionally, wool has antimicrobial properties which can reduce the rate of rashes.

In use, the merino wool isn’t itchy, and performs admirably even when drenched in sweat. This is due to wool’s ability to absorb significant amounts of moisture before it feels wet which also has the benefit of reducing friction in sensitive areas (for me, it reduces nipple chafing).

At first I was worried that the wool would be too hot for summer running, but I quickly found that it was more comfortable than my synthetic gear due to its breathability, wicking, and absorbant properties. Synthetics are breathable, but I have found that the minute I put them on in hot weather I feel damp (synthetic fibers don’t absorb water, but rather wick it away to its surface leaving the fabric feeling wet). Wool, on the other hand, not only wicks but also absorbs, while drying just as fast.

The downside to wool’s absorbance is that it has a tendency of feeling heavier during long runs. My second concern was that wool would wear out faster, but after 6-months of near daily use that hasn’t been the case. Their isn’t even the slightest indication of pilling even in places of high wear (between the legs).

Unfortunately, Icebreaker running gear is more expensive than many of the synthetic alternatives, but its a justified expense given that it feels and performs better. Finally, because a single set of wool running gear can replace several pairs of equivalent synthetics while also cutting down on the number of loads of laundry, you can cut costs elsewhere.

Bicyclists were the first to recognize wool’s superiority as an exercise fabric given their historic use of wool biking jerseys. Now that companies like Icebreaker are incorporating soft but durable merino wool into a much wider range of products it’s only time before most of my wardrobe is woolen.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Icebreaker Men’s Distance Short

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Icebreaker

Torque Engine Diagnostic App and OBDII Reader


For years, every time I had a “check engine” light pop up I thought about plopping down $100 or more for an OBDII code scanner. I could never rationalize the cost of the the device and the limited benefits that it could give me (being limited to simply reading and perhaps resetting codes).

However, that’s all changed. Now if you have an Android phone or tablet there is a much less expensive and much more useful alternative. An app called Torque Pro available in the Android Marketplace provides an amazingly customizable dashboard of information. Among others, and depending on the vehicle you own, it can display transmission temperatures, 0-60 speed timings, and track CO2 emissions. The application is capable of graphing all the analytics, or outputting to a PC. Recently, the things that I have been using the most are instant and average fuel economy statistics.

The OBDII interface that connects your car to the Torque app can be used by any bluetooth enabled code reader (Torque has provided a list of all compatible devices). The one I use and recommend is the ELM 327 bluetooth OBDII scanner that I picked up on Amazon for around $20, but most compatible units will work just as well.

-- Karl Hafer Jr  

[If anybody knows of an equivalent iOS, Windows Mobile, or Blackberry application, we'd love to hear about it. --OH]

Torque Pro
Android application
Available from Android Marketplace

ELM 327 Bluetooth Scanner OBDII Car Diagnostic Tool

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Elandpower

Sample Excerpts:

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The application has a customizable dashboard that can be used to track horsepower, CO2 emissions, and transmission temperatures among other variables.