15 October 2018
Precise garden snip
Fiskars’ PowerGear Bypass Pruner, previously reviewed, is the handiest, most used tool in my vegetable garden, but it’s too big and clunky for precision cutting of young salad greens and herbs. For that task, the company’s Pruning Snip is an outstanding and inexpensive tool.
Snipping action requires little effort because the short blades are quite sharp and a spring in the center of the handle returns the shear to its open position after each cut. A small garden scissors could work almost as well as the Fiskars Softouch Micro-Tip Pruning Snip ($12), but the spring-activated light-action cutting makes a big difference for ease of use. Like the larger pruner mentioned above, this model gives a lot of cutting output with disproportionately little input. This shear is also useful for carefully thinning densely grouped seedlings by cutting the excess plants at their bases.10/15/18
(This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2009 — editors)
14 October 2018
Goo Gone ($7) is a liquid that helps remove adhesive residues. I’ve been using it for years to clean off the adhesive residue left from stickers, labels, tape, etc.
Let’s say you just bought a picture frame and removed the label from the glass. In order to remove that irritating, gummy adhesive residue left by the label, you just rub a bit of GooGone over it with a cloth and the goo is gone! No need to use a razor blade, acetone or other nasty solutions.
Not much of an odor, and an 8oz. bottle lasts for years since you use just a small dab each time!10/14/18
(This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2009 — editors)
14 October 2018
Recomendo: issue no. 116
Freeze dried taxidermy
Occasionally a small bird strikes one of our windows and dies. Rather than bury it, I freeze dry it. I insert the whole bird into a baggie with a pack of desiccant to keep it dry. The desiccant gel slowly absorbs the moisture in the bird even after it freezes. After a year it is fully dried, and can be kept on a shelf or display indefinitely with all its feathers. This works on birds the size of a sparrow or smaller. — KK
After decades of using a Utili-key as my choice of a small knife to pass through airport security, I lost it in the woods. I replaced it with Victorinox SwissCard. This tool is a mini-Swiss Army knife flattened into a plastic holder the size of credit card but thicker. It has a tiny (1.5 inch) sharp blade, scissors, tweezers, a pen, toothpick, and a pin. You can carry it in your wallet or bag. Goes through security. There is a knock-off version which remarkably adds a magnifier, a light, and four screwdriver heads in the same size card for half the price at $9 — but you’ll need to sharpen the flimsy blade. — KK
One of the things I miss about the 1980s was writing programs for fun in BASIC. A couple of years ago I started playing around with Python. It’s easy to learn, and powerful enough to do anything I would want to automate. Christian Thompson’s YouTube channel has wonderful Python tutorials for beginners. Check out the one on how to program a Pong clone. — MF
Advice book on Audible
At the behest of my best friend, I finally downloaded the Audible version of Tiny Beautiful Things, advice on life and love from Cheryl Strayed’s column Dear Sugar. The book is a collection of the most heartbreaking and honest letters seeking help and the advice given. Strayed’s thought-out responses pull from her own life experiences dealing with her mother’s death, drug addiction, divorce, and now as a happily married wife and mother. They are beautiful written and incredibly moving. This book elicits empathy, laughter and at times, lots of tears. There were a few times I was literally sitting in traffic and sobbing listening to her stories. I highly recommend. — CD
Read books in new languages
Parallettext.io is an online tool that helps you learn languages by reading a book in a foreign language with your native language side-by-side. You can click on any sentence to hear it out loud. I’m not sure how helpful it is to learn an entirely new language, but it’s useful for me to read in Spanish from time to time to remind myself of how sentences are structured differently. Right now, I spend a little time each day working my way through Alice in Wonderland. — CD
Cheap DVD Reader
No one in my family of four has a CD or DVD drive in their computer. That’s a good thing, because we rarely need one. When we do (usually to rip a movie or copy photos or music), I pull out this $15 USB CD/DVD drive and plug it into a laptop. — MF
Sign up here to get Recomendo a week early in your inbox.10/14/18
13 October 2018
Dangerous home experiments
Theo Gray’s Mad Science ($17) is a rare home-chemistry book where the advice of “don’t try this at home” is, for once, appropriate. I usually complain about the scare mongering of home chemistry, but half of the experiments in this how-to book really are extremely dangerous. But the other half are pretty cool. There are no explicit step-by-step instructions given for any of the experiments, just guidelines of what to do. Gray, whose column appears in Popular Science, wants you to do some research and not just be a “script kiddie.” Stunning photos of what to expect from each project help. My son and I have done a few of these and they do work. The prime lesson engendered by this book is the sense that the material world is far more accessible to hacking than first appears.10/13/18
[warning box near instructions for combing sodium and chlorine to make table salt]
Real Danger Alert: This is the most dangerous experiment in this book. Sodium burns skin and eyes on contact and explodes when exposed to water in any form, sending flaming liquid metal in all directions at high velocity. Chlorine gas kills painfully and spreads rapidly. Under no circumstances should either of these chemicals be handled outside the presence of an experienced chemist. Combining them borders on lunacy.
FULL OF HOT AIR The exhaust port on a vacuum blows air from below, turning an ordinary grill into a raging inferno, capable of melting glass, iron, even itself if left unchecked.
All the components of glass can be found in two places: the beach and the laundry room. It's possible to melt pure-white silica beach sand into glass, but only at temperatures of 3,000 to 3,500°F. Washing soda, lime or borax (a traditional laundry aid) added to the sand disrupts the quartz-crystal structure of silica and reduces the required temperatures to a more practical, though still dangerous 2,000 °F, which I achieved with a backyard grill and a vacuum cleaner.
A charcoal fire fed with air from the bottom is hot enough to melt the combination of those materials into glass but not hot enough to make it truly liquid, so bubbles tend to remain and make the glass cloudy. I mixed the finely ground ingredients together and heated them in a cast-iron pot, then poured the molten glass into a graphite mold and pressed it down with a graphite stamp.
Soda-lime glass has the lowest melting point but must be cooled slowly to avoid shattering from the thermal stress.
PEPSI PAINTING Tinfoil distributes the current to form a pattern through a stencil and a layer of paper towel moistened with Diet Pepsi.
Homemade Titanium: With lots of heat, some flowerpots and common chemicals, you can turn raw ore into shiny metal.
An iron crowbar costs about $8; one made of titanium, $80. Solid-titanium scissors start at $700, and don't even ask about the titanium socket wrench. Titanium must be a rare and precious substance, right?
Actually, as raw ore, titanium is 100 times as abundant as copper. ... At temperatures high enough to melt it, titanium exposed to air catches fire. So it has to be refined, forged, welded, and cast in a vacuum or under inert gas--an expensive process.
Yet I was able to make titanium using equipment I had lying around. I did it with thermite reduction, a process commonly used to weld train tracks. In an iron thermite reaction, iron oxide reacts with aluminum and comes out as liquid iron. I just swapped in titanium dioxide instead. But that reaction, in which titanium dioxide transfers its oxygen atoms to aluminum, doesn't release enough heat to melt the materials.
So I mixed in drywall plaster (calcium sulfate) and more aluminum powder. They react to create huge amounts of extra heat, enough to melt the titanium and allow it to pool at the bottom of the container. Adding ground fluorite powder makes the molten metals more fluid and protects the titanium from air as it cools.
I used clay flowerpots, as suggested by Gert Meyer, who developed this procedure. When nested with sand between them, they last just long enough to let the titanium cool into beads of solid metal.
Many of the topics I write about are things I did when I was growing up, and I survived. Without those experiences I might have ended up as a stock broker, or worse.
Science is not something practiced only in labs and universities. It's a way of looking at the world and seeing truth and beauty everywhere. It's something you can do whether you are employed as a professional scientist or not. While I have a degree in chemistry from a fine university, I've never worked as a professional chemist. I do these demonstrations in my shop on a rural farmstead half a mile from the nearest neighbor. (This is handy when exploring the louder aspects of chemistry.) Mostly I use simple kitchen and shop supplies and chemicals from the hardware store or garden center. I do avoid working in a real lab, because I would much rather tinker in my shop and find a simpler (some might say cruder) way of making the experiment work. Amateur scientists, many of them self-taught, tinkering in their shops and basements have done great things. Using a spirit of making do with what they have and seeing just how far they can take it, they make real contributions to the advancement of science.
It makes me cringe when I see warnings to wear gloves and safety glasses while working with baking soda. It's called crying wolf, and it's deeply irresponsible, because it makes it that much harder to get through to people about real dangers.
Some other chemicals, however, are not your friends. Chlorine gas kills, and you hurt the whole time you're dying. Mix phosphorus and chlorates wrong and they blow up while you're mixing them. (I have a friend who still has tiny slivers of glass coming out of his hands twenty years after he made that particular mistake.)
Every chemical, every procedure, every experiment has its own unique set of dangers, and over the years people have learned (the hard way) how to deal with them. In many cases the only way to do an experiment safely is to find a more experienced person to help. This is not book-learning, it's your life at stake and you want someone by your side who knows what they are doing. There is an unbroken chain of these people leading right back to the first guy who survived, and you want to be part of that chain.
When I do an experiment that looks crazy I either have someone with me who's done it before, or it's something that I've worked my way up to slowly and carefully. I build in layers of safety, and I make sure that if all else fails I have a clear path to run like hell (and of course I wear glasses at all times).
(This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2009 — editors)
12 October 2018
Cool Tools Show 144: Laura Cochrane
Our guest this week is Laura Cochrane. Laura Cochrane is a content strategist living in Berkeley, California. She currently works at NEO.LIFE, a biotech publication. Before that, she was an editor at two different DIY project publications: MAKE magazine, where she worked alongside Mark, and Instructables. Her hobbies include rock climbing, drawing, dancing, and yoga.
Tom Bihn Daylight Backpack
A couple years ago, before a trip to Europe, I was on the hunt for a new day backpack. The JanSport I had had since high school had holes in it. I wanted something with a clean, minimal design. It’s actually a challenge to find a backpack that doesn’t have a bunch of random zip compartments, pouches, folds, mesh details, and gratuitous textures added for seemingly no reason at all. So I was excited when I found the Tom Bihn Daylight Backpack. It’s got a simple rounded trapezoid shape with a single diagonal zip that provides access to the front pocket. I got it in this really nice French blue color that looks good with most everything I wear. It also shipped fast, and as I recall there was a handwritten note thanking me for my order. It’s made in Seattle, and the quality is solid. I’ve stuffed it until it’s quite full and the seams have held up for the past two years as I’ve used it as a work commuter backpack.
I’ve loved this website for a long time. It’s an online photo gallery born out of the era of peer-to-peer filesharing. It was started in 2004 when a musician named Rich Vogel was using a filesharing program to find music and instead stumbled on a folder of photos. It’s still getting updated periodically, though I’m not sure how often. The collection is thoughtfully curated, like an epic mix tape. Though I can’t always put my finger on why one photo works so well next to another that seems unrelated in every way. When I want to be reminded of how beautiful the imperfection of real life is, I go here. These photos are often the mistakes, the ones the photographer never intended. Some are blurry, poorly framed, or double exposed. People have been captured with weird expressions or unflattering angles, but that’s part of the appeal. They’re stills from the cutting room floor of life. I find humor, horror, love, and glory, in a way that feels rare.
Audio Dharma podcast
Audio Dharma is a regularly updated collection of all the talks and guided meditations given at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California. A massage therapist recommended it to me after a particularly emotional session a few years ago. I started out mostly listening to the guided meditations, but lately I’ve been more into listening to the talks. They work well for someone who is listening in short bursts, so I’ll put it on for my 15-minute work commutes in the morning and evening. In moments where I’m feeling particularly stressed or sad, these talks can have the effect of helping me change what feels like a less-than-ideal metaphorical posture: when I’m overly focused on the future or the past I have this sense of leaning forward, like my mind is two steps ahead of my body. Audio Dharma helps me realign to something closer to upright — a posture of gentle curiosity. My favorite talks are the ones where the teacher picks a simple human experience, like uncertainty, desire, grief, or generosity, and they explore it in a way that usually leaves me feeling like I have a new perspective on a very common human experience. Most of the podcasts or music I listen to feel like they fill my head with noise that requires additional processing or decompressing afterward, but this feels like the opposite. To use a computer analogy, Audio Dharma defragments my brain.
PocketDisc crocheted frisbee
I like throwing around a frisbee, but I enjoy it even more with my crocheted frisbee. I don’t remember how I came into possession of one of these, but I love it. The main things that make it awesome are that it never hurts if someone throws it at you hard, and it folds up and can fit easily in pockets, purses, and bags. Also: it flies quite well, it can be given as a gift to people of all ages, and it’s safer to use inside the house. When I’m feeling silly, I’ve been known to flip it inside out and wear it as a hat. The only places I wouldn’t recommend it are around dogs, because I imagine they would quickly chew it to shreds, and on beaches. On the beach, the lip of the disc picks up sand when it lands on the ground, and then the next time someone catches it next, the sand gets released into the catcher’s face. I’m sure I could brush up on my crocheting skills and make myself one from scratch, but I feel like these are a good deal, for the money. They also make great gifts.
We have hired professional editors to help create our weekly podcasts and video reviews. So far, Cool Tools listeners have pledged $377 a month. Please consider supporting us on Patreon. We have great rewards for people who contribute! – MF10/12/18
12 October 2018
Rapid, safe, strong pliers wrench
The Knipex Pliers Wrench ($40+) is best described in the US as a smooth-faced channel lock plier/wrench. Or, as a pliers-handled crescent wrench. I have a set of 3 different sizes and have used them for a year. They allow one to rapidly, safely and strongly grip nuts or bolt heads for tightening or loosening.
Rapidly: an adjustable crescent wrench is not rapid. One must adjust the opening to the nut or bolt head, and between tightening turns, in removing and replacing the wrench, inevitably the wrench loosens a bit and must be retightened. An open-ended or box wrench or socket is the best tool to use, but then one must keep in hand a range of sizes for each size of nut/head. In contrast the Knipex pliers wrench loosens and tightens like a pair of pliers or channel lock wrench.
Safely: an adjustable crescent wrench tends to loosen, rounding off the corners of the nut or bolt head. Pliers or vice-grips are worse, putting teeth-marks on the nut or head. In contrast the Knipex pliers wrench has flat, smooth, and parallel heads ensuring no rounding or gouging of the nut/head.
Strongly: the lever arm of the Knipex ensures a strong grip on the nut/head. I’ve used them to squeeze small solid aluminum rivets in building an experimental airplane.
To summarize, the Knipex pliers wrench combines the best features of other tools, enabling one to grip and turn nuts and bolts with a single tool, and apply considerable squeezing pressure on objects without gouging or tooth marks.10/12/18
(This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2010 — editors)
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