Tech Journalist and Podcaster, Tom Merritt [Cool Tools Show # 18]

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Our guest this week is technology journalist Tom Merritt. Tom is the host of the Daily Tech News Show, which features tech news, commentary and analysis with reporters and experts from around the world. He’s also the co-host of the Sword and Laser podcast and book club with Veronica Belmont. Tom’s tool selections emphasize streamlining complex or time consuming tasks for maximum efficiency. If you are interested in tools that will shave precious minutes off your schedule, Tom’s suggestions are worth the time it takes to listen to this episode of the Cool Tools Show.

Feedly (Free)
The best RSS reader

“I settled on Feedly mostly because they reacted really well to the needs of people like me who wanted an interface where you could scan through a lot of different headlines, mark things to be able to look at later…I use it all the time. I’m in it constantly. It’s a permanent tab on every browser I own.”


Blue Icicle ($31)
XLR to USB Mic Converter and preamp

“[I]t’s just easy to throw in a bag and when I’m doing any kind of recording out on the road I can use a better mic than I might get if I had to buy an all in one mic and USB solution and I can adapt to other mics, so it’s usually my recommendation to folks.”



Duolingo (Free)
Playful way to learn a new language

“The interesting thing about them is they fund themselves by providing translation services. So when you complete a lesson it will tell you, “You can now read and translate 60% of all Spanish articles. Would you like to try?” Then you go in and you translate part of an actual page in whatever language you’re learning, they use that as sort of a crowd sourced way of providing automatic translation services. ”



Kuhn Rikon Garlic Press ($36)
Easy to clean and powerful enough to press ginger

This one has a swivel mechanism. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around the first time you see it, but essentially it pops the grill out on it’s own pivot arm so you can wash water right over it and it cleans it up really easily and it pops back into it’s setting where you can push the flat piece against it when you need to actually push some garlic.



Yubikey ($25)
USB authentication device changes passwords every time you use it

“This is a USB key, you put it on your key chain and surf any site…that supports it. Instead of having a code set to your text message or having to run an app where you put in a number to do second factor authentication for login, you just put the Yubikey in. It’s a lot faster and a lot quicker. “


Darn Tough Socks

This is in response to the review of Smartwool socks in the new Cool Tools book.

Both are merino wool socks, but there is one important distinction that makes Darn Tough better: lifetime warranty, normal wear and tear included. If you are able to wear them out, they will replace them. You can bring the old pair into any store that carries Darn Tough sock and they take the old ones, and you can go pick out a replacement pair.
Darn Tough makes socks for just about every occasion, it’s the only sock I wear. Made in Vermont.

-- Blake Bolt  

Darn Tough Socks
$14 and up

Available from Amazon

Walkstool Comfort

In my work travels, I sometimes find myself in a roomful of equipment – and no furniture. Since using a laptop figures into most of my work, standing usually isn’t an option, and sitting on the floor is okay for a while. Jumping up and down or sitting cross-legged too long comes only when I have no other choices.

So I added a Walkstool Comfort to my kit. It’s a high-quality, collapsible, telescopic-legged camp-style stool built in Sweden. The 45cm/18″ model is low enough to create an ideal lap-based laptop perch. It packs up surprisingly small, and is built for heavy first-worlders – mine’s rated for 200kg.

Sizes range from 45cm/200kg up to 75cm/250kg. The rubber feet are large enough to limit their sinking into turf/sand.

Anyone who attends events where seating may be unavailable, or whose health limits where they go, or whose work is non-Aeron based should consider getting one of these.

At first glance, these things aren’t cheap, but when you use them they’re priceless.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Walkstool Comfort
$78 – $140

Available from Amazon

Anova Sous Vide Immersion Circulator

After a month of researching sous vide appliances I purchased the Anova Sous Vide Immersion Circulator. I have been cooking with the Anova for three months now and have been very pleased. I have used the Anova to cook everything from poached eggs, steaks, and for Christmas, 25lbs of tri-tip. Each time the food came out perfectly as is the nature with sous vide.

For a brief background, sous vide (French for “under vacuum”) cooking is essentially cooking in a warm water bath for an extended period of time. Much like smoking or traditional barbecue the lower temperatures and longer cook times can produce delicious tender food. Foods do not need to be under vacuum; a re-sealable freezer bag with the air removed (air is a poor heat conductor) works quite well. Since the foods are contained inside the bag, no moisture is lost and all flavors remain in contact with the food. Additionally, some chefs will directly poach in fat, oil, or butter with their immersion circulator. When cooking sous vide the chef will set the final desired temperature while the device will hold the water at that point indefinitely. Over time the food will be cooked to that exact temperature throughout without ever going over. Unlike traditional methods where high heat is used for faster cooking times, the temperature is low and the foods can never over-cook. For more detailed information about sous vide I would recommend visiting this site or anything written by Dave Arnold.

The Anova is a circulating heating element combined with a PID (proportional-integral-derivative) controller. The PID constantly compares the set desired temperature compared to actual measured temperature and adjusts the heating element to account for any discrepancies. This allows the Anova to accurately hold a desired temperature to within ± 0.01°C in a range of 25°C to 99°C. The 1KW heating element is powered through 115-120 & 220-240 VAC. The impeller pump is capable of moving 12L per minute. The device measures 2.5″ wide by 15.5″ tall. It attaches to any vessel using a study rubber-tipped screw.

The device is controlled through a color touch-screen liquid crystal display, LCD. The user interface is simple and intuitive. The user need only set the desired temperature, set an optional timer for shutdown, and select “Start.” The screen will show the current temp, set temp, and run time. Like a crockpot or slow cooker the device is “set and forget.” The Anova has a low water sensor and will shut off automatically. Occasionally on longer and hotter cooks water may need to be added to the vessel to maintain adequate levels.

What separates the Anova from other similar devices is 1) its price, at $200 it is less expensive for the same specifications of its rivals. 2) the heating element guard is stainless steel and easily removable for very easy cleaning. 3) it features a directional nozzle for the impeller. 4) it is made by a medial laboratory device manufacturer with experience in the field.

Unlike the previously reviewed Sous Vide Supreme, an immersion circulator can be used an a variety of vessel sizes. For larger cooks I use a Cambro full-size gastronorm food pan which holds 27 qt. For smaller cooks I use my stock pot. It is also half the price and a fraction of the size. Similar devices are available, most notably from a rival medical equipment company PolyScience. The PolySci circulators are $300 more expensive than the Anova and have plastic heating element guards which must be removed using a screwdriver.

In summary, the Anova is a professional grade device which is simple to use, easy to clean, easy to store, powerful enough for even your largest cooks and reasonable priced (in the world of sous vide).


-- Reid Bradshaw  

Anova Sous Vide Immersion Circulator

Available from Amazon

Cool Tools 2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Kevin’s Picks

This month we’ve run a series of gift suggestions. In our final installment, Cool Tools founder Kevin Kelly selects his favorite toolish gifts. Happy holidays!

Stick N Stack Magnetic Tiles ($150) 

Magna-tiles are large plastic shapes with super magnets buried along their edges so that they can be linked into solid sculptures. They are an open ended construction system that can make tall and complex buildings very fast. They are a lot of fun for kids who are too small to use Legos. We’ve reviewed them previously on Cool Tools.

To do much with them, though, you need lots of tiles, which can get expensive. But now there are a number of cheaper knock-offs, or alternative systems, that are compatible with Magna-Tiles. Brands include PicassoTile, Connect Tiles and Stick N Stack. These systems work interchangeably with Magna-Tiles — their magnets line up exactly in the same places on the same sized pieces. They seem to be just as durable, but they are cheaper. I have the 150 piece Stick N Stack set and the pieces work perfectly with my MagnaTile pieces, and they come in a few more shapes, such as windows, arches, and frames. With a large set like this, the magnets allow even small kids (and grownups) to rapidly build complicated structures.


Perplexus Rookie ($20) 

The Perplexus is a 3D maze that requires concentration and dexterity to solve. It’s designed so you keep advancing to levels of greater difficulty, but you need to start over if you die. However starting over is easy. The kinetic manipulation of your hands needed to solve this resemble the twitches of a video game controller, but there are no electronics at all in this game. It’s a lot of fun because it is so physical, but it is not easy to solve. We previously recommended this as a great Cool Tools toy that won’t get old very fast, and will never need batteries.

Still, I never made it to the end (although my teenage kids did). To give beginners more a chance, Perplexus came out with a simpler version called the Rookie. I can actually complete this one, and so can 6-year olds. At the same time they also released two more difficult Perplexus versions for that smarty-pants in your family who found the original Perplexus too easy. The Perplexus Twist ($25) requires some problem solving and the Perplexus Epic ($22) is epically difficult to complete. All three of these (and the original) are beautiful works of art that could also sit in a glass display case with ease.



Mini Strandbeest ($19) 

This is a kit for assembling a small working version of Theo Jansen’s famous walking machines called Strandbeests. Jansen’s original contraptions were larger than human machines made of PVC pipes that would walk along the beaches in the Netherlands, powered by the fierce winds. This miniature kit version uses the same geometry. The tiny Strandbeests can be powered by a hair dryer or small fan. This kit is released as a special issue of a Japanese magazine, but it comes with a minimal set of instructions in English. It is not difficult to assemble (most parts are duplicated) needing about 2 hours for someone say 8 or older. To appreciate the genius of its design, be sure to watch any of Jansen’s video of the large-scale machines in action.

There are other knock-offs which I have not built yet.


4D Vision Anatomical Models
Human Head Model ($19)
Eyeball Model ($15)
Human Muscle And Skeleton Anatomy Model ($17)

These plastic anatomical models are inexpensive and small. Putting them together from even smaller pieces is a bit of a puzzle, in that the directions are almost non existent. You have to just see how your body parts fit. Younger children will need help, and even adults may be challenged. Yet the models are highly detailed, informative, revealing, and for an anatomical model, incredibly cheap. I have put together the eyeball, the heart, the muscle man, and head. I learned a lot about each by putting them together. In addition to being instructive and useful for health education, they make great displays. — KK



Brock Microscope ($156)

Expensive but indestructible. This is the microscope that science museums and public education teachers use. These scopes take a lot of abuse, yet are simple to use. I’ve also seen them used on sailboats because they don’t corrode. It has only one moving part, no electricity, and provides decent magnification. We keep one out on the table at our home, with the philosophy that the best microscope is the one that is open and ready to use. It’s fine for very young kids to use all by themselves, with almost no instruction. It will last several lifetimes. You can easily make micro photographs by holding a camera or phone right against the eye piece.

Want more gift ideas? Take a look at our other 2014 Holiday Gift Guide and 2013 Holiday Gift Guide posts.

-- KK  


Worlds best toothpick!  Has a pleasing, textured surface and the perfect shape to maximize crumb-picking effectiveness from your teeth and gums.  The very small, pocketable plastic case makes it easy to always have a fresh pick at hand (each case holds 32 picks), yet these last for quite a few uses. I enjoy them as a simple, effective pleasure.  A brilliant solution that once you try, you’ll never go back to wood.

-- Dave  

Opalpix 32ct., 6 packs 192 total picks

Available from Amazon

Hole Template

We went with IKEA for our kitchen remodel and saved a lot of money putting it all in ourselves. However, when it came time to install the handles on the cabinets, I tried carefully measuring the first one I did and it did not work very well. Then I found IKEA sells a drill template for just this purpose, it makes it trivial to install handle after handle in the same spot each time, and the handles came out great. The drill template aligns with one side of the cabinet door and you can mark and drill in seconds. I used a Sharpie to circle the holes that I was marking to make it even easier to know which holes in the template I was using.

-- Jeff Lorenzini  

Fixa Drill template

Available from Ikea


Ryan Block, Cofounder of Engadget [Cool Tools Show #17]

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Our guest this week is Ryan Block. He’s the co-founder of gdgt, and the co-founder and former editor of Engadget. These days he is VP of Product at Aol, and is co-host of MVP, a show about technology products. Quality and staying power are the primary criteria in Ryan’s list of essential day-to-day tools. His impeccable taste for the tried-and-true tools is revealed in the invaluable picks and advice offers in this episode.

Amazon Prime ($99/year)

“You have the infinite store shelf of Amazon and it shows up in two days. Access to all of the best products in just about anything you can imagine is insanely powerful if you’re a believer in the Cool Tools philosophy and that’s why, to me, Amazon Prime is the uber-tool on top of everything. It allows you to acquire the best of anything at any time.”

Bruer ($79)

“…Bruer is a home cold brewer that is extremely easy to manage, clean to operate…they did a really nice job with it. It’s got really nice high quality glass. It’s not Pyrex so it will definitely shatter if you drop it. It’s got these pretty good silicon seals on it and it’s just ridiculously easy to operate. It makes about 24 to 25 ounces of cold brew at a time and it’s now my primary means of drinking coffee…”

KitchenAid Stand Mixer ($262)

“When you’ve got a stand mixer you find things to do with it that you might not think of normally doing with it. That’s one of the things that makes a great Cool Tool, when you buy it thinking you’ll use it for one thing and you wind up using it for so many other things.”

Tydlig ($2.99)

“In some ways it’s almost like highly interactive spreadsheet in calculator, but it does do a lot of other advanced graphing functions. All the things you would expect a good calculator app would do, it does.”


Pico Folding Armchair

We have been using the Pico Folding Armchair for the past three years on our boat and even at home when we were installing wood floors and our furniture was stored away. The chair, while not light or inexpensive, is far better engineered and more durable than the typical “camping” chair which lasts about a season before something fails. The chair folds and telescopes down to a small package that fits into the accompanying shoulder bag which is about the size of a laptop bag.

The bag has several pockets for storage of the things you are likely to need outside – water or drink bottle, book or magazine, etc. When the chair is is use, the carrying bag slides neatly over the backrest to provide additional storage for a towel, etc.

The chair itself has a comfortable sling-type seat, with armrests that have built in storage for your drink and a couple of zippable pockets for valuables, cellphone, etc.

The chair is perfect for the back yard, your boat, camper, outdoor concerts, and even for extra guests indoors.

-- David Jones  

Compact Folding Pico Telescoping Arm Chair

Available from Amazon

Cool Tools 2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Readers’ Choice!

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, we’ll be presenting a series of gift suggestions. This week, we’ve asked some of our most active commenters to make gift recommendations.


Fenix MC11 Flashlight ($61) “As a stagehand for over 30 years I have spent a lot of time in the dark. All of us in this profession have a love of flashlights, as they are a very important tool in our trade. The MC11 flashlight gives me a choice of presetting the mode to blinding high, medium, or low light levels, strobe, and even SOS. It’s powered by a single AA battery so it is small (4″ overall) and a very easy carry. A really aggressive and strong clip means I can clip it to my belt or pocket or even a hat brim. The adjustable 90-degree tilting head is a great help. I can point the beam where I need to see it, and there is an easy-to-find pushbutton power switch on the top.” — Kent Barnes


4Sevens Preon 2 Penlight ($41) “Aging eyes need more light, and this penlight is totally wonderful for men who generally wear a shirt with a pocket. I automatically reach for it in dim-light conditions, and also use it to search for things.” — Michael Ham

“My top recommendation for the holidays is the Kindle of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing ($10). A one-time Shinto shrine maiden, Kondo bases her “KonMari” method on the assumption that one’s house and all the objects in it have consciousness but, boy howdy, even if you’re a die-hard materialist, follow her method and you’ll zoom to a wiggy new oxygen-rich level of tidy.” — C.M. Mayo

The Flavor Bible ($26) “This book contains hundreds of charts listing ingredients and flavors that taste great together. It’s perfect for anyone who loves to experiment and create new recipes.” — Troy Packrat

“I’ve tried a couple of fancy honey dispensers, but the best one I’ve found is free. (That is, after paying for the honey it comes with.) It’s a 16-ounce plastic bottle of Safeway’s O-Organics honey. (Don’t get the larger sizes — they won’t work.) It dispenses honey only when the bottle is squeezed. When the pressure is released, a clever valve in the spout shuts off any further flow, so there are no dribbles. (Perhaps — in fact, probably — other sources have a similar bottle. It’s surprising that more don’t.)” — Roger Knights

Want more gift ideas? Take a look at our other 2014 Holiday Gift Guide and 2013 Holiday Gift Guide posts.