Swivel Straight Christmas Tree Stand

One Christmas tradition I was happy to discard what was the annual fight with the tree stand. My brother and I would wrestle the tree into the kind of old stand that uses bolts to screw into the trunk to ostensibly stabilize it. Being the younger of the two, I had the task of holding the tree while lying on the floor after it had been impaled on the stand’s spike and then turning the three bolts into the soft pine in rotation, all in an effort to try to have the tree stand straight. Between the griping and groaning and being covered with pitch, this was a major operation that often had temporary results, leading to guy wires from the tree to the wall to keep it upright.

And then my mother bought a Swivel Straight Stand.

20 years later, having inherited the stand, putting the Christmas tree up is a breeze.The mechanism attaches to the tree separately from the stand, so you can do it outdoors before you bring the tree in. You then plop it into the stand and — voila! — the tree is standing solidly. Need to have it tilt to the right? Push the foot-lever in the stand down, move the tree to perpendicular, release the lever. Done. I can think of no gadget in my household of gimcracks that has been as simple and dependable.

-- John Bulger  

Swivel Straight Tree Stand

Available from Amazon

Kickstarter School

Kickstarter is the premier crowdsourcing platform. It offers a way to finance your project by enabling current fans and wanna-be customers to pay you before you do your project. You don’t pay back your backers except indirectly with creative rewards as thanks. Often the reward is a unit of your project — a device, book, game, etc. Kickstarter is not the only crowdsourcing venue, but it is the largest, most active, and the most refined. So far, over 35,000 projects have been successfully funded — all kinds of creative dreams including games, gadgets, documentaries, music, shows, and one-of-a-kind happenings. One of those winners was a project I launched in 2012 — a graphic novel. We successfully raised $42,000 to complete a second book in our fictional universe. Like many financed projects, I believe that if we could not have crowdfunded it, the project probably would not have happened. In this way, Kickstarter is a fantastic cool tool.

There’s an art to running a successful crowdfunded campaign. While there are several guide books that offer advice on how to raise “big bucks” on Kickstarter, none of them (yet) are better than the simple free Kickstarter School section on the Kickstarter site. It tells you how to prepare the essential “video pitch” that seems to be needed, and gives suggestions on structuring your rewards (what backers get by funding you). Yet it is missing some things I wished someone had told me before we began our Kickstarter campaign:

1) We didn’t have enough cheap seats. Have a lot of different levels of support — including a lot of inexpensive ones of only a few dollars — to give everyone a chance to contribute. And don’t be shy about adding a few really high levels either.

2) Don’t rely on Kickstarter to find funders. You need to gather your fans first before you start, and then once gathered, use Kickstarter to engage them with your project. Once you pull the trigger, there’s no time to find new fans — and they don’t come from Kickstarter. Fans first, then Kickstarter.

3) It’s a full time job. Kickstarter campaigns ordinarily run about one month and during that time, it takes almost full time work to cheer, coax, and promote the project to your fans. There is nothing automatic or easy about it. Somebody has to lead the crowd during the whole time.

4) It all happens at the end. Even with successful grants, the bulk of the contributions come in at the end. So don’t stop drumming; keep sprinting till you’re past the finish line.

5) Don’t forget the Man. When calculating how much you need, remember not only to include the cost of delivering your supporters their rewards, but don’t forget the 8% commission Kickstarter and Amazon will take. That’s a hefty chunk of your total that you need to compensate for when setting your goal amount.

I have friends who skipped Kickstarted and opted for other crowdfunding sites. For instance Indiegogo will deliver funds even if you don’t meet your goal (Kickstarter is all or nothing), 33Needs shares profits with backers for ongoing enterprises (Kickstarter only funds projects), and so on. However for most projects I think Kickstarter is the place to start; it’s well crafted. I hope to do another crowdsourced project, but not as large. In fact, while the giant successes get the most ink, what Kickstarter really excels at is financing medium and small projects that one or two people can reasonably achieve.

-- KK  


The rTracker is currently one of the most versatile and customizable apps for self-tracking on the market. Unlike other tracking apps that offer you a fixed set of questions pertaining to only one or two areas (e.g., your body measurements or mood), rTracker allows you to set up your own questions, so you can log any aspect of everyday life, all in one app.

I personally use it to log and store data for about 70 different life variables, including heart rate, weight, mood, social interactions, situational context, etc.. The rTracker also offers a great selection of measurement scales, from boolean (“checkbox”) to multiple choice (“radio-button”) to numeric and text input. I especially love the “sliding” scale, which better represents latent continuum (e.g., mood or happiness) than Likert scales.

Viewing your past records is easy, and you can always go “back in time” and change or add the data point for any given day and time. Another awesome feature of rTracker is shareability: you can export not only data, but also the questionnaire set up so other people could install the same questions on their phone.

The “function” feature of the app allows you to carry out calculations and data manipulations “on the fly”, right in the app. For example, I track my self-esteem on a daily basis using three questions. The “function” automatically calculates the arithmetic average of responses to all three questions in order to get the summary score.

For those of you who are concerned about privacy: rTracker stores your data directly on your phone, and you export it by plugging the phone in the computer and using iTunes.

Finally, rTracker is truly “mobile”: you are not “tied” to the computer, and can log and view your data “on the go”. It also does not require a wireless signal in order to open and use it.



rTracker for iPhone
99 cents


A spork may be a simple thing, but this one is handmade in the U.S. from medical-grade titanium that is recycled from military and aerospace scrap. It’s lightweight and virtually indestructible. I’ve had it for two years and suspect that it will not only outlast me, but my children as well.

Why titanium? It’s lighter, but stronger than steel. Titanium is also rustproof, hypoallergenic, and bacteria-resistant.

The handle also contains a bottle opener, an oxygen bottle key, a 0.325 inch hex nut key, and a 0.25 inch hex nut key.

-- David Stewart  

Full-Size Apocalyspork

Manufactured by American Kami

Floppy Tube Garlic Peeler

When you are pulling together a meal, anything you can do to minimize prep time up front — or more importantly, along the way — helps make things run more smoothly and cleanly. I love garlic and often increase (or double) suggested amounts in recipes for the dishes I like to make. I don’t mind peeling garlic per se, but it can get tedious and slow especially when a recipe asks for a lot. Considering how sticky it makes your hands as well, doing this mid-cook can be a real time suck and throw off one’s rhythm.

This amazingly simple tool makes a huge difference. You can peel multiple cloves of garlic in just a couple seconds with no mess whatsover. Whether you are prepping for a recipe or realize you need more garlic once you are already going, this can save a great deal of time and energy. You just pop 2-5 cloves into the tube, roll it with the palm of your hand, turn the tube on it’s side and voila – the peeled cloves just fall out. At this point its just a quick mince, press or slice and you move on.

On top of the usage benefits, cleaning and storage are also exceedingly convenient. Just giving it a quick rinse under the tap releases the accumulated skins inside the tube and is a sufficient clean most of the time. After several uses — or each usage if you are germaphobic — you may give it a thorough wash as it is dishwasher safe.

-- Ali Kafshi  

Floppy tube garlic peeler

Available from Amazon


Founder of Geek Squad, Robert Stephens [Cool Tools Show #008]

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Podcast on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | Download MP3

Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, lets us know how his analog tools and hobbies even out the frantic pace of modern, wired life. His high-tech offerings are especially reflective of his desire to use cutting-edge inventions as tools for personal development. From the whimsical to practical, ancient technology to barely breaking innovations, there’s something in this week’s show for just about everyone.

Show Notes:

A book about building Cob ovens, recommended by Robert:

Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer

Here are Robert’s tool picks, with quotes from the show:

Flower Press ($17) or DIY

“They say you should stop and smell the roses. I would add to that that I think you should grab them and press them between books for a while!”


Watercolor Tin DIY (prices vary) (Use Fimo air-dry clay [$5] for paint reservoirs)

“People have started taking old Altoids mint tins and squirting tubes of watercolor in them and they sell these little paintbrushes at the art store. I was in London a few weeks ago and I was staying in a nice hotel with nice stationary. I pulled out my little tin and I painted a picture of The Ritz hotel while sitting having a coffee and popped a flower I had pressed in there and mailed it to my daughter who was back home.”

Cob Oven DIY

“A Cob is a ten thousand year old technology…. And six feet under just about anywhere on earth is some mixture of sand and clay so it’s safe to use. Clay doesn’t dry in thirty minutes like concrete so it’s very forgiving. And so it’s very natural and it’s all local materials.”

NomadPlus ($39)

“You do is you take your iPhone charging cube and it slides over it like a jacket and it gives you a battery pack, making it about the size of the iPad cube. When you’re on the road you can plug your phone into this and it’s a little battery juice pack.”

Tile ($20)

“Basically it’s a Bluetooth low energy tracking device. I put on on my key-chain. I put one in my car, just toss it in the armrest, and I put one in my backpack. And  whenever it comes within range of my iPhone using Bluetooth low energy, they talk to each other and the phone records where the phone’s location is and therefore it knows when the last time you saw your car.”

Eidetic (Free or $2 for Pro versi)on

“I really like it because I think this is the idea of augmentation. Using technology to help us be more human and personal and one of the things I’m trying to do is exercise that muscle of memory and this is the best one I’ve seen yet. ”

Below are some of Robert’s bonus tool picks that we didn’t have time to discuss this time. Enjoy!

Blaze $200

Crofflr $5

Genius Scan (Free or $7 for Pro version)

Listen to previous episodes of the Cool Tools Show.


Khan Academy

Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Khan Academy, the free online school? A favorite of the digiterati, this website was founded by Sal Khan who started out by making video tutorials on how to learn algebra. He captured his instructional doodles on a black screen (rather than focus on his talking face) and these short intense classes were amazingly effective. Our son used them for high-school math summer school. Students love them because they can go their own pace, and back up when needed. Sal Khan branched out to cover almost every other school topic, from history to economics, in over 4,000 videos. I’ve searched for, and attended, specific lessons in his Chemistry set in order to brush up on a forgotten point. While his math and SAT prep ones are still the best, all his courses are free, and he still teaches better than the average teacher.

Overview of KhanAcademy.org: An overview of the different ways to use Khan Academy

-- KK  


When trying to solve the world’s problems with software, it is incredibly difficult to get stakeholders and collaborators to relate and contribute to solutions until after the software has already been developed – creating huge waste.

Paper designs and low-fidelity static mockups force people to use too much of their imagination, and each person’s imagination and perceptions are different. In the past, the costs of collaborating in this environment were large.

Enter InvisionApp.com – the simplest and fastest way to get dozens of project collaborators on the same page with a high-fidelity, clickable prototype (something everyone on the team can relate to) without the cost of previous generations of so-called ‘prototyping’ solutions.

Other tools like AxureRP or iRise are expensive and complex to use, and myBalsamiq makes it too difficulty to get to high-fidelity.

I have been using it for 6 months and it has been an absolute game changer.

-- Jeff Evans  

Free and subscriptions ranging from $13 – $90/month

Spud Bar

First, I don’t own this specific model, but this is most like the one I do own. The one I inherited three years ago was referred to as a pry/spud bar. I’ll be referring to it as a spud bar in this review. I wouldn’t recommend trying to dig a post hole with just a spud bar, I imagine it’s possible, but it’ll take you awhile and you’ll look silly. If you’re doing any kind of landscaping or burying any kind of post that isn’t supposed to be moving for a good deal of time, I’d make sure you have a spud bar at your disposal.

So what’s the purpose of a spud bar you ask? Well, if you’re digging in an area that has a fair amount of clay, your typical post hole digger is going to struggle to break up the clay to remove from the hole. But, if you force the wedged end of the spud bar into that clay a couple times and pry, should be a lot easier to remove the clay from the hole.

I’ve also use the spud bar to help clear gravel, roots, heck, I’ve even used it to help clear some concrete. My personal favorite use was when I used mine to pry/roll the ~300 lb. odd shaped rock to a new location in my back yard, friends still don’t believe I moved it myself. The flat round end allows the spud bar to be utilized in coordination with a mallet or sledge hammer to help wedge/drive it wherever you intend.

When it comes down to it, it’s just a shaped steel bar, a simple tool that if utilized correctly, can quite effective.

-- Samuel Sanders  

True Temper 69-Inch Post Hole Digging Bar

Available from Amazon

Currie Ezip Trailz Electric Bike

This is the electric bike I recommend for anyone on a tight budget. The Ezip Trailz is a bargain in terms of how much it can affect your life on little dollars. It is by far the best selling electric bike in the United States, for good reason: For less than $500 it is a decent electric bike with reasonable performance.  At this price point if you just ride the bike regularly it will pay for itself quickly.

It uses a sealed-lead-acid battery (SLA), which is heavy and has a short life expectancy, but… is extremely inexpensive compared to lithium (and more fire safe).  The Trailz weighs in at a hefty 72 pounds because of this SLA  battery.  It comes with step-through model, which I favor because it is much easier to get on and off the bike, which is a big factor on a 70-pound bike.

The Trailz is perfect for anyone who either wants, or needs, a way to get to work without a car or public transport, or for anyone who can’t drive a car for some reason (for instance it makes great transportation for anyone who has lost their license due to a DUI or traffic tickets).

The Currie Trailz is a simple electric bike that rarely fails and is easy to work on. Any bicycle shop should be able to fix 80% of the problems you will encounter. Probably the biggest electrical issue you will ever face is the battery gradually dying if you don’t care for it properly. However its easy enough to buy a new battery from Currie and switch it out — or better yet upgrade to the Currie lithium battery.

The lithium battery will offer slightly more range than the lead acid version, it will be better for climbing hills, and it will lower the weight of the bike by nearly 20 pounds. The lithium battery is pricey, in fact it’s as almost as much as the price of this bike ($359 shipped). It is possible to install 2 of these batteries on the rear rack if you want to double your range.

The Currie Trailz is not the fastest, lightest, or sexiest electric bike on the market, but it is the cheapest, and is therefore a great entry electric bike for those who need a little electrical push to get back on the saddle and out riding.

-- Eric Hicks  

Currie Ezip Trailz Electric Bike

Available from Amazon