16 September 2019


Stainless-Steel Stove-Top Popcorn Popper and Coffee Roaster

Winning re-review

Roasting coffee at home is one of the best kept secrets. You get far superior coffee at a much lower cost — and I live in Seattle so I’m comparing the Cook N Home Stainless Steel Stovetop Popcorn Popper ($38) with the best roasters around. It’s easy to do, takes about 20 minutes (basic instructions and links below) and produces about a pound at a time. I’ve been roasting 1-2 times a week for over 2 years.

This popcorn popper is much like the previously reviewed Whirley-Pop Theater Stovetop Popcorn Popper but it is significantly more durable in material (stainless steel vs aluminum), gauge (much thicker) and gears (metal vs plastic). This is important when roasting coffee (vs. popcorn) because it is much heavier and puts significantly more strain on the parts. Also, heavier pots distribute heat better.

Why Roast at Home? Because you have a far bigger selection of beans to choose from so you can cater to your personal taste (chocolate, lemon hints, molasses, florals, etc.). Green beans are much cheaper than roasted. Freshness is probably the biggest factor in coffee taste and unless you are picking your coffee up from a roaster the chances are you’ve never had really fresh coffee.

Why Stovetop? Many home roasters use old air poppers as roasters. These can work fine but you need to get the correct air popper (new ones usually don’t work). They are much harder to control and they make a serious mess (when fresh beans are roasted the outer skin cooks off as a light chaff which air poppers blow all over the place). Home roasters (previously reviewed here) give you far less control and typically involve somewhat laborious cleaning of parts. Also the inexpensive ones don’t handle the chaff problem. Air poppers and home roasters also provide almost no way to control the considerable smokiness of the process which is why most people use them outdoors.

Stovetop Method: Sweet Maria’s has a whole section on this as well as adaptations made to this popper (have it do the work for you by adding a drill to do the stirring!) and the many cool devices people have hacked together for home roasting using everything from old BBQs to hot air guns which is one of the reasons they are the best home coffee site around.

Stovetop Popper Options: This popper varies in price so you might want to start with the previously reviewed whirley pop. It costs $21 and I used at the beginning. I switched once I knew I would be doing this a lot and for a long time to come. I’ve been using this popper for almost 2 years and it’s never been cleaned and it works like a charm – well worth it. Replacement gears are available for a few bucks online and they will eventually wear out (especially if you use a drill for stirring instead of your hands).

Jump In!: Reading about coffee roasting is worthwhile and Sweet Marias has everything you need to know. The only problem is that it will make you think it is far more complicated than it really is. The bottom line is that it takes a little practice and once you have done it you realize you just have to get the temperature right and watch/listen/smell for the obvious signs of it being ready. Don’t be put off just jump in and try it. I’ve tried many DIY things from the Arduino to making jam and I can assure you that this is the easiest and most rewarding of all them.

-- Charles Borwick 09/16/19

(This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2012 — editors)

16 September 2019


Panavise Cast Weighted Base

An alternative to bolting down a vise

Like probably everyone who comes to Cool Tools, I’d love to have a big shop, lots of room, big heavy work benches, gigantic vise, all that. But I don’t. In my efforts to get stuff done anyway, I’ve got a Panavise, the typical version in a typical mount. It’s a very handy thing; most of you already know about them. There are an assortment of bases: Table-edge clamp, round simple base, vacuum-base, and a weighted base. I find the round base too light and scoots around when I try to use a Panavise. The vacuum base might work well on a suitable surface, but they’re sorta costly and limited to those ideal surfaces. The clamp is probably okay but not always suitable (and having that clamp bit under the table edge can be a hazard to happiness). Mine has the five-pound cast iron base ($30) under it, with some robust rubber feet. It certainly stays where I put it, goes anywhere, doesn’t mar whatever it’s set on, and does the job very well. I haven’t tried to put a mower blade in it – I think that’s asking for disappointment – but for everything else so far, it’s been great and really adds to the concept of working with a Panavise. I see that there are some units that shipped without holes! Mine came with all its holes & parts (screws & rubber feet), and went together without issue – though a single burr I knocked down with a coupla swipes with a file. I understand some may think the whole stack of three pieces (base, mount and vise) may be costly, but it’s way cheaper than moving to somewhere with a proper shop. If I ever get into a shop, this will be at home there too.


-- Wayne Ruffner 09/16/19

15 September 2019


YNAB/Best bicycle bag/Self-care checklist

Recomendo: issue no. 164

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A home budget that makes sense to me
For years I’ve tried to keep a home budget, but it never seems to work. I end up spending more than I budgeted in some categories, less in others, and I don’t keep good track of what I’ve spent. When our Cool Tools podcast guest Lillian Karabaic recommended something called You Need a Budget (YNAB) a couple of months ago, I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did. YNAB’s websites and mobile apps are excellent, as are the podcasts, videos, blog posts, and mailing lists they produce. It took me a while to wrap my head around the YNAB method, but now that I get it, I’m a true believer. For the first time in my adult life, I feel in control of my finances. — MF

Best bicycle tour bags
The best way to tour somewhere, IMHO, is via bicycle. E-bikes make that even easier these days. For overnight touring, you’ll need some bags (panniers). The blue-ribbon panniers are classic Ortlieb dry bags. Each is a roomy, rubberized single bag (no dividers or pockets) that seals off at the top to provide an absolutely waterproof container. Not cheap, but because of their simplicity they will last a lifetime. After 2,000 miles of use, I am very attached to mine, in bright yellow. — KK

Self-care checklist
It can be very hard to check in with yourself when you have anxiety or having a bad day. This is a very simple checklist for self-care that I found floating around Reddit. — CD

Mindful quotes
Five quotes that I’m minding right now — KK:
”The only interesting ideas are heresies” — Susan Sontag
“Technology is the reason we get old enough to complain about technology.” — Gary Kasparov
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” — Dwight Eisenhower
“If my work is accepted, I must move on to the point where it is not.” — John Cage
“Remember, you can’t be stuck in traffic; you are the traffic.” — Kevin Slavin

Ergonomic Wireless Mouse
My Magic Mouse was giving me claw hand from the way I had to grip it and I needed to a find an alternative mouse, so I immediately googled Wirecutter’s tested picks and bought their upgrade pick of the Logitech MX Master Mouse ($70). Full disclosure: I thought I had purchased this from a list of the best vertical mouses. Even after it arrived and I began using it, I still mistakenly thought I was using a vertical mouse and that I had quickly overcome the steep learning curve that everyone talks about. By the time I realized that it was not a vertical mouse — just a very good ergonomic one — my claw hand was gone and I was happy with it, so I just kept it! My favorite thing about this mouse is I was able to customize the buttons and scroll wheels to do everything my Magic Mouse used to do. — CD

Cool drink for a hot summer
It’s been hot for the last couple of months here in Los Angeles and my family is guzzling the iced hibiscus flower tea I’ve been making. We go through a half gallon a day, and each glass costs about a penny. I make it with this one pound bag of Feel Good organic dried hibiscus flowers I bought for $15. I make it by putting two tablespoons of flowers into a half-gallon mason jar and fill it with boiling water. When it is cool enough I put the jar in the refrigerator. The ruby red liquid is pleasingly tart and satisfying. — MF

-- Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder, Claudia Dawson 09/15/19

13 September 2019


Rob Walker, The Art of Noticing

Cool Tools Show 192: Rob Walker

Our guest this week is Rob Walker. Rob is the Human Resource Columnist for Lifehacker.com, and a longtime contributor to the New York Times and many other publications. He’s on the faculty of Products of Design graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, and his new book from Knopf is The Art of Noticing, 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration and Discover Joy in the Everyday. You can find him on Twitter and Medium at @notrobwalker. Sign up for his newsletter where he shares news, tips and inspiration for building your attention muscles.

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Show on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

Show notes:

Bienfang Notesketch Pad with Horizontal Lines
This is a notebook that I’ve used for a long time. I know that people have such strong opinions about notebooks. But what I like about it this is on each page, the bottom half is ruled and the top half is blank. I like that to be able to either write things, or sketch things, or whatever. And that’s what drew me to these notebooks in the beginning. I get the 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 size — the small size. I’ve been using them I realize now, since college. The other thing I like about these notebooks, is that they’re not too precious. They’re actually cheap. I went through a Moleskine phase, but I never felt like I had anything worth saying to it, to ruin this beautiful object. This is spiral bound, but it’s not too precious. It’s not this object that you feel like you’re spoiling every time you write down some dumb observations.

Switchmate for Toggle Light Switches
We happen to have these front lights that are on a standard toggle switch and I was always forgetting to turn them on at night or turn them off in the morning. I’d leave them on until noon or something, because I would just forget. And I didn’t want to go through the whole rigmarole of rigging up, getting an electrician. I didn’t want a problem and I randomly discovered this thing and I thought that looks perfect. It’s a little box that has magnets in it that you can put over a standard toggle switch and there’s a mechanism inside that literally, physically just flips the switch up or down. Clunk, clunk. So it’s a dumb smart home product, you hook it up to an app and put it on a timer. You don’t need to worry about the wiring.

Decibel X Noise Meter
Decibel X is an app tells you what the decibel reading is. And that’s it. That’s the whole story. I get such pleasure out of it and it’s kind of like junior high school dork pleasure of just like, I wonder what the decibel level is in here. There’s one tab that you can poke on that’ll say like analogous to a quiet room or a noisy street for whatever. I have no point to this, but I find that it’s one of the apps that I check the most frequent. I bet I open it as much as I open Instagram. For no good reason. I’ve never crosschecked it, but its answers seem intuitively right in the sense of it’s loud in here now, so it’s in the red zone. The red zone is considered harmful and that’s like 90 to 100. A subway is 100. A jet engine is 140, 150.

In Our Time Podcast
I’m a huge fan of this podcast. I’ve been listening to it for some years now. The host is Melvyn Bragg. The premise is that every week he gets in three academics to talk briskly for an hour through one topic, which can be anything from Frankenstein to Ulysses Grant. It’s sort of like those Great Courses, except it’s all just boiled down to one hour, and it’s just lightning fast. It’s quite impressive.

Also mentioned:

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday is my new book. It’s designed as a series of exercises and prompts and games and things you can actually do (or reflect upon) to build attention muscles or just get off your phone and enjoy noticing stuff that everyone else missed. Prompts such as:

Look Slowly. Discover the Big Within the Small. Sketch a Room You Just Left. Follow the Quiet. Review the Everyday. Hunt the Infrathin. Get There the Hard Way. Eat Somewhere Dubious. Trespass. Make a Field Guide. Talk To a Stranger. Listen to an Elder. Be Alone in Public. Make a Personal Map. Interview An Object. Care for Something.

Imagine a cross between Ways Of Seeing and Marie Kondo!


13 September 2019


NoPhoneSpam App for Android

Block calls from annoying or private numbers on your Android device

I’ve used NoPhoneSpam for a couple of years. The Android app enables you to set up certain rules to automatically hang up/ignore/silence/obscure calls such as those from robo-callers and spam/scams/spoofed numbers. It does this based on filters you create.

I no longer get robocalls, or at least, they never make it through to bother me. Now I know that when my phone rings it’s almost always a legit caller.

Some cell carriers in the US have some level of spam prevention but robo callers are so numerous and prevalent that they still can circumvent these carrier-side filters. This means we have to do it ourselves and which of your readers in not a DIY’er? I have, for example, a rule set up in this simple app to disallow calls from anyone with the same prefix. That’s a common number spoofing tactic to get you to pick up. Scammers call you from a spoofed number that similar to yours: same area code and prefix.

The app is available from the alternative app repository fdroid.org (another cool tool in and of itself! But I’ll save that for a future submission).

-- Will Barrueto 09/13/19

12 September 2019


Little Giant Ladders with Work Platform

Highly configurable ladder

The Little Giant Ladder has been mentioned on the blog in 2013, but with a very brief blurb that really fails to explain why this ladder is so wonderful, and doesn’t mention the work platform. I have had a Little Giant for 20 years. The models have changed, but it looks to me like the Velocity ($190) may be similar to what I have.

What’s really great about this ladder is that you can adjust the length of the two sides independently. This means that the ladder can be a 4-foot step ladder, a 5-foot step ladder, a 6-foot step ladder. You can make it just the right height. You can also slide one side out more than the other to place the ladder on a sloped surface, or to use it on stairs. I recently needed to get to the ceiling area above my stairs and don’t know how I could have done it without this ladder.

Then of course you can open the ladder out flat and use it to get on the roof or to reach other high places. But that’s not all. The typical ladders I recall have a little fold out paint can shelf with a warning not to step on it.

The Little Giant work platform ($33) can be placed on a Little Giant ladder at any height and is strong enough to support a person. It’s a fantastic addition that I use all the time because it enables me to stand comfortably and easily and turn in different directions as I work, sort of like having a tiny scaffold to stand on.

It’s also often handy that you can ascend the Little Giant from either side of the ladder. And you can set it up as two short ladders and lay some boards across to create mini scaffolding. (They also sell an accessory for this, which I have not tried.) This ladder has really been the only ladder I needed since I bought my house 20 years ago. It is still in great shape and was well worth the price.

-- Adrian Mariano 09/12/19



img 07/8/18


Classic puzzle in great package

img 11/6/18

Forschner Victorinox Chef’s Knife

Inexpensive great chef knife

img 01/26/10

Toto Eco Drake

Low-cost, low-flow toilet

img 11/27/08

Omega Juicer

Quiet, versatile juice extractor

img 09/12/12

EBike Shipper

Cheapest bike shipping

See all the favorites



Cool Tools Show 192: Rob Walker

Picks and shownotes

Cool Tools Show 191: Susie Bright

Picks and shownotes

Cool Tools Show 190: Nik Schulz

Picks and shownotes

11 September 2019


Cool Tools is a web site which recommends the best/cheapest tools available. Tools are defined broadly as anything that can be useful. This includes hand tools, machines, books, software, gadgets, websites, maps, and even ideas. All reviews are positive raves written by real users. We don’t bother with negative reviews because our intent is to only offer the best.

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We recently posted a short history of Cool Tools which included current stats as of April 2008. This explains both the genesis of this site, and the tools we use to operate it.

13632766_602152159944472_101382480_oKevin Kelly started Cool Tools in 2000 as an email list, then as a blog since 2003. He edited all reviews through 2006. He writes the occasional review, oversees the design and editorial direction of this site, and made a book version of Cool Tools. If you have a question about the website in general his email is kk {at} kk.org.

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