20 October 2017
Cool Tools Show 094: Simon Quellen Field
Our guest this week is Simon Quellen Field. Simon is a chemist and former Google software engineer and is the author of over a dozen books, including Gonzo Gizmos, Return of Gonzo Gizmos, Culinary Reactions, Why is Milk White, Elements Vault, Why There’s Antifreeze In Your Toothpaste, Electronics for Artists and, most recently, Boom!: The Chemistry and History of Explosives. He’s the author of the science toy website SciToys.com and several novels.
Taylor Wharton LD10 Aluminum Liquid Dewar ($638)
“I’m often asked to demonstrate scientific toys and things at different science conventions, like the Google Science Fair … and one of the things that they love when I show off is all of these fun things that you can do with liquid nitrogen. And, of course, it lasts a lot longer if you keep it in a big Dewar. So, I’ve got this thing, it’s about 2 feet tall, about 10 inches in diameter, And holds 10 liters of liquid nitrogen, which I get locally from a place called Nitroderm. And we do all kinds of fun things with it. Put some liquid nitrogen in a bowl and squirt some whipped cream out of a spray can into it, freeze it really hard. Kids pop it into their mouth and crunch on it and fog comes out their nose like a dragon.”
Mastercool 90066-B Vacuum Pump ($130)
“I have a vacuum chamber, and this vacuum pump, this one does six cubic feet per minute, which is pretty good. It used to be that vacuum pumps were really expensive, but once the smog dealers needed them in order to take the Freon out of your air conditioner for environmental reasons, everybody needed one and they got cheap. But, with this vacuum pump, I can put some liquid nitrogen into a small thermos and put it in my vacuum chamber and start sucking the air and the nitrogen vapor out of that chamber. And after about a minute or so, you get solid nitrogen … and then you disconnect it and let the air rush in and in about 3 seconds, it’s liquid again.”
Tekpower TP3005T Variable Linear DC Power Supply ($80)
“It’s got a nice LCD display on it and you can set the current or the voltage to be constant. And what I use it for is electroforming. You take a solution of copper salts and a few other magic ingredients. Usually, it’s a proprietary mix, they don’t tell you exactly what’s in it. But you can start electroplating something and if you let it go, it will make a thicker plating … So, for example, suppose I took an egg. I could paint conductive paint in a pattern on the egg, like a filigree or a tree or whatever. And then I could submerge that in the plating bath and plate it for 20 minutes or so and get a thick enough copper plating that I can dissolve the egg away and now I can hold this filigreed Fabergé egg-like thing in my hand.”
Baofeng Ham Two-way Radio ($35)
“I picked this up recently, when I was going up to see the eclipse up in Oregon, and we knew that there would be so many people in these little towns that only had cell phone bandwidth for a tenth as many people as were going to be there and so, we wanted to stay in touch and be able to chat with other HAMs on the road about traffic conditions, which we also expected to be a nightmare. … And this little gadget … It’s got 128 memories that you can easily program with all of the repeaters for all of the HAM radio repeaters on the mountains and stuff and it just works … It does everything you want and it’s tiny. … It’s probably good for anywhere, 5 to 20 miles. But once you hit the repeater, now the repeaters are networked, so I can talk to people in Portland, Oregon or in San Diego.”
20 October 2017
Telescopic range of 6-3/4" to 37-inches
Three years ago, I stumbled across this Lighted Telescoping Inspection Mirror mentioned in a Sears email. I bought it on a whim, since I could see some potential uses for it. It was one of my better impulse buys!
If you work with A/V equipment or computers, you know that all the ports/plug-ins tend to be on the back side of the machine, snugged up against the wall. This tool allows you to slip a mirror behind the equipment and see where things are located. With the incorporated LED light, finding what you are looking for is much easier even in dark nooks and crannies. Now, anytime I need to connect an HDMI cable, an A/V cable, or a USB cable, the first thing I grab is this mirror.
Once I started using it on a regular basis, I found more scenarios where it came in handy: finding things in the lower section of my engine compartment (especially when I dropped a socket and it got stuck somewhere), checking the soap level in the soap pump bottle under the kitchen sink, looking at the plumbing in the bathroom vanity, etc. I’ve even used it to see where the cable feed hole is on my desk when I’m trying to get yet another USB cable connected from point A to point B.
It has a telescoping handle that extends 33 inches, a non-slip grip handle, and a bright LED light, powered by a standard CR-2016 battery. The mirror unit can be swiveled about 300 degrees, making it easy to adjust to any situation. It is fairly compact, and folds almost flat. I haven’t seen many of these in tool stores, and the few I’ve seen are more expensive than what I paid for this tool. It’s available on the Sears website or in their store, if you live nearby. It sure beats using the dental mirror and flashlight setup I used before!10/20/17
19 October 2017
Superb backcountry GPS app
We all use GPS to navigate urban areas. But what about the backcountry? If you’re skilled with map and compass, you can, under favorable circumstances, determine your point position. But if it’s dark, you don’t recognize any landscape features, or you’re in heavy forest cover, you’re probably out of luck. As a wilderness navigation instructor (and former Forest Service ranger), I’ve tested over a dozen backcountry GPS apps, and for me Gaia comes out on top. I have used this app for about three years. It enables me to travel with increased confidence and safety in the back country when hiking and mountaineering. Here’s why it’s great:
- A quality GPS app offers the holy Grail of navigation: a highly detailed map with a “you are here” marker on your exact location. Gaia has the complete functionality of a “normal” GPS: mark waypoints, record tracks, generate routes, show compass, show distance and bearing to a waypoint, download quality basemaps, and easily share this information with others.
- It has a (mostly) intuitive interface without much extra fluff (like posting your hike statistics to social media.)
- Gaia works in airplane mode (which is a great battery saver) and outside cell phone range. Download base maps via wifi (faster) or over cell network for use when you’re outside cell phone range.
- Superb customer support. Gaia has a dedicated support staff who will usually get back with most any question you have within a day or two. How many apps can say that?
- Regular upgrades. In May 2017 Gaia released a major update. This has a cleaner interface, a “snap to trail” feature which is a great help in making routes, additional base maps, faster map rendering, and more.
- Terrific base maps. Many GPS hiking apps give you one or a just a few options for underlying base maps. Gaia gives you dozens, and with the pro version, you can layer one on top of the other, for example a satellite image and a topo contour map. Open source mapping gives street, topographic and cycling coverage for the entire world, so the app works great for international travel.
While you can probably figure out the core functions of the app on your own, there are some good YouTube videos that can get you up to speed in a few minutes. (At present, Gaia works better on the iPhone than Android, but the Gaia development team is apparently working hard on an improved Android version.)
Standalone GPS units (like from Garmin) have some major drawbacks – they cost several hundred hundred dollars, have a poor user interface and screen resolution, and have limited and often expensive base maps. Since I put Gaia on my iPhone a few years ago, I have not once taken my Garmin on a hike or mountaineering trip.
The iPhone uses both the US GPS satellite constellation and the Russian GLONASS system, so receiving satellite signals even in canyons or under tree cover has improved greatly in the last few years. (On a recent multi-day trip on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon last month, Gaia consistently found my exact position in a narrow river canyon in under 20 seconds.)
There are a few downsides to phone based backcountry GPS: Battery life, fragility, and the lack of a dedicated GPS antenna. You should always carry a small auxiliary battery and charging table, and consider a sturdy case for your phone if you’re really going to beat on it outdoors. And, of course, you should always carry a paper map and know how to read it.
If you’re a “GPS power user”, and use your GPS to record tracks for all day for multiple days, or use it in very cold weather conditions, you may want to have a dedicated GPS. But for pretty much all “recreational” users, Gaia GPS on your phone should be all you’ll ever need. Gaia offers a free one-week trial to put it through its paces, and after that it’s $20 a year annual subscription. Yes, that might seem a lot for an app, but if you consider it’s quality and the cost of the alternatives, it’s still a bargain.10/19/17
19 October 2017
Cheaper than doctor visits
It’s been a long time since we had a child at home. But our favorite pediatrician, Dr. Alan Greene, recommends the EarCheck Middle Ear Monitor, which uses sonar to check for ear infections, the number one reason kids need to see a doctor. Just slip the nose cone of the device into child’s ear and press a button. The child hears a chirping noise but feels nothing–and you get a reading that indicates how well the eardrum is moving. A “Green” light means the eardrum is functioning well, and most likely your child does not have an ear infection. A “Red” reading suggests that there is fluid behind the eardrum, so a visit to the physician is needed. Further details on using the monitor can be found at Dr. Greene’s Housecalls.10/19/17
(This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2004 — editors)
18 October 2017
Weekly roundup of the best maker tools and projects of the week
This week on Maker Update, Blade Runner binoculars, setbacks at Glowforge, custom zipper pulls, JOY pads, and colorized laser engraving. This week’s Cool Tool is the Canary Corrugated Cardboard Cutter.10/18/17
18 October 2017
Speakerphone for Skype and other VoIP calls
I’ve been using the Jabra Speak 410 USB speakerphone for about 16 months. It has a number of benefits over using the built-in microphone on your laptop computer. The biggest benefit for me is the omni-directional microphones inside. You can throw this speakerphone in the middle of a medium-sized conference table or kitchen table and everyone’s voice is picked up clearly. Because this device can be moved away from my laptop I can take type without everyone hearing my tapping on the keys. The sound quality coming from the speakers is also quite good. The device isn’t a very large (approx 6″ wide by 1″ tall) but the sound is moderately loud and crisp. The device has tappable volume and mute controls so anyone speaking into the device can easily adjust the volume or mute the call.
I haven’t used any other USB speakerphones but it is has been a superior replacement for my mobile phone and laptop mic as conferencing tools. I have not used this speakerphone in a noisy environment so I’m not sure how well it cancels out background sounds.
Note: This microphone only works over USB so it can’t be connected to your mobile phone but Skype calls and other web-based conferencing systems such as UberConference or GoToMeeting work great. Jabra has is a newer model called the Speak 510. The 510 has bluetooth capabilities and has a built in battery. I have not tried this device. It costs $12 more but could be worth it if you’d like to use a device like this with your mobile phone.10/18/17
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23 February 2017
An avid cyclist shares his road gear
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