Sunnan Lamp

Last year I was walking through IKEA when I saw this strange little solar-powered goosenecked lamp in the lighting section. Intrigued, I bought it and took it home to try out.

I love it. The bulb is nice and bright, perfect as a reading lamp. And the battery/solar panel unit pops out, so you can leave it by a window or on your car's dashboard, and it will fully charge while you're at work. Since then, I've gone back and bought a second one. I always have a battery pack charging on a windowsill, and I always have light for my latest book.

Oh, and we brought one of the lamps on a camping trip. It was really handy there too. I left it on one night as a sort of night light for our daughter, and in the morning, it was still shining, just not as brightly. This is one of the few solar-powered gadgets I've encountered that actually works as promised. A nice additional bonus, for every lamp sold, IKEA donates one to a child in a country with unreliable electricity.

-- Katherine Falk

Ikea Sunnan Lamp

Available from and manufactured by Ikea


Security Cartoon



How To Sanitize A Hard Drive

For non-Solid State Drives (SSDs) I would use a tool like the open source TrueCrypt full-disk encryption. Using the software you want to encrypt the entire disk, including all system partitions, and then change the key to a very long random string. Then format the drive.

If you put sensitive data on a non-encrypted SSD then a good way to physically decommission the drive is to heat it with a propane torch until the PCB catches fire. At that point the magnetic domains aren't magnetic anymore.

-- Willy Yam

[This question got some great answers, and in addition provided some interesting insight into the differences between traditional hard drives and SSDs, and why SSDs are harder to rid of data. Check out the full question for more info.-- OH]


ViTiny USB Digital Microscope

I have had this handheld USB digital microscope for a couple of months and have found it really handy for working with anything with small geometries, or whenever I want to see something really small. The optical magnification range is 1x to 80x, but is advertised as having even higher magnification through digital zoom (basically, just zooming in on the digital image).

The bang-for-buck is huge even if you don't need to look at high-resolution negatives from some spy-plane. It can be used at a broad range of magnifications, from microscopic (the fibers in paper look like a log-jam) to its alternate use as a webcam by just changing the distance and re-focusing. It really shines when you put it against something you need a close look at because of its built in light source, two magnification levels set by spinning the focus ring, and the Windows-only software that lets you do calibrated on-screen measurements and side-by-side comparisons with one side live.

The price is low enough you might suspect it's a toy instead of a tool, but it's serious hardware. It has a 2 mega-pixel sensor, with decent optics and enough configurable image control to satisfy the geekiest tool buff, but the defaults make it simple and practical to use right out of the box.

There are other USB microscopes out there, but this one is affordable and has so much utility that it's fun to use. Last time I loaned it out it took weeks to get back because everyone who tried it had to show someone else the snazzy little tool they'd just ordered for themselves.

-- Jon Crabtree

Vi-Tiny USB Digital Microscope
Windows XP/Vista/7 Compatible (no support for Mac OSX)

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by ViTiny


Pixlr-O-Matic Adds Retro Grunge to Your Photos on the Fly [Photography]

Pixlr-o-matic is a flash-based webapp that allows users to add effects to images in a way reminiscent of Hipstamatic on the iPhone. The process moves the user through three processing steps, which mimic the effects of old film/developer combinations, lenses, and cropping. Images can either be snapped via webcam, or uploaded to the site straight from the computer. The whole thing takes about a minute, and finished images can either be saved when finished or shared directly through imm.io, which is Pixlr's own image-sharing service.



Moshi Moshi Manual Cellphone Handset

Posted: 18 May 2011 08:03 AM PDT

In these days of the ubiquitous cellphone, it can be rare to use a "normal" phone, even if you spend most of your days desk bound. As much as I love my iPhone, when I'm sitting in my office I miss using my desk phone with its comfortable handset and easy to dial keypad. Additionally, as someone who likes to listen to music when I work, an incoming call on my iPhone means unplugging it from the cradle, a minor annoyance.

Native Union has solved my problem with a series of handsets that allow you to take calls using a traditional handset attached to your cellphone. I picked up the MM02, a fairly basic corded model featuring a cradle, that I have really come to appreciate (they make a cordless Bluetooth version, but it is significantly more expensive).

The handset connects to the iPhone via the 3.5mm socket on the top of the phone, leaving you free to rest the iPhone in the charging cradle, audio device etc. The handset is reassuringly solid, with a pleasant, matte plastic feel to it, and the well built cradle sits happily on a desk. There is an answering button in the centre of the handset that makes it easy to pick up calls, but one downside is that there is no keypad on the handset, so although you can dial out you need to use the keypad on your mobile handset itself, and that can be a bit fiddly. If you're flying a desk like me, you may find that you make your outgoing calls on your desk phone anyway.

I've had the MM02 handset for around 6-months now and find it a delight to use. At the time of purchase it seemed to be the only accessory of its type. Overall, a very handy piece of kit, especially if you're a desk-bound cellphone user.

-- Alan Arthur

[Although the reviewer notes that he used the handset solely in conjunction with his cellphone, this handset can be used with any product containing a 3.5 mm socket including a laptop or iPad thereby making Skype or Google Voice calling a little bit more traditional and comfortable on unwieldy devices. --OH]

Native Union Moshi Moshi 02 Handset
Available from Amazon

Native Union Moshi Moshi 01H Handset (without a cradle)
Available in a variety of colors

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Native Union

Sample Excerpts:

Native Union MM01H ).jpeg
Native Union makes an even simpler retro model, the MM01H, that comes in a variety of colors while being a bit more affordable for those who don't need a desktop cradle.


Make Sure Your Email Message Gets Read with Good Email Etiquette



303 Aerospace Protectant

Posted: 17 May 2011 08:20 AM PDT

Back in the early 1970's Armorall was introduced and quickly adopted by car owners and others who wanted to keep plastic components looking their best and lasting as long as possible. 303 Aerospace Protectant is the professional-grade version of this kind of product, and I have yet to find anything better.

Predominantly sold to aerospace and marine users, it's widely available online and at marine supply stores. It does not gloss up plastic, doesn't leave gummy residue, and actually does work to extend plastic life. The proof for me has come in the fact that I am one of the few owners of a Porsche 924/944/968-series cars whose dash has not cracked over time: my car's almost 19 years old now and all the treated plastic and rubber components are doing just great.

-- John Etnier

303 Aerospace Protectant

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by 303-Products


Write anywhere

Cool Tools update

Swiss Army Replacement Pen

Posted: 12 May 2011 11:06 AM PDT

Recently, the previously reviewed Derringer Wallet Pen caught my eye. The fellow recommending it said he found it really handy, and that he always had something to write with since he'd started carrying this pen.

I got my ruler out to see if it would clip into my wallet and found that the 4" long stainless steel Derringer wallet pen would protrude from my 3.88" wallet. That is unlike the pen I've already got in my wallet, which is almost invisible unless you know it's there. I use — and have done so for many years — a Swiss Army Knife pen refill, Victorinox model number 30422.

It costs $2.95. It's a replacement pen for the one that comes as original equipment in Swiss Army Knives. 91mm (2.75") long, with a gray, curved top that fits snugly into the body of a Swiss Army Knife, these handy little pens come in blue or black ink. There's also an even smaller (2" long) version that fits the smaller, key-chain size knives. I don't recommend it because it's very difficult to grasp and write with.

Now, you are not going to want to copy out Moby Dick with my little pen, but for quick notes, sudden flights of fancy or inspiration, phone numbers, and the like, you can't beat it. And I always have a pen. So often no one does, and I don't think I do, until I realize hey, I do have one. People smirk and scoff but they're very glad when they see it writes just fine. A life-saver.

-- Joseph Stirt

Years ago, I lost my Swiss Army knife and when I went to replace it, I found a model I hadn't seen before. Instead of the toothpick, this one had a retractable ballpoint pen!

A pen? I'm excited about a pen?
Victorinox Swiss Army Signature Pocket Knife.jpeg
Yes. After years and years with this (and having to replace it when I went to the airport and forgot to take the knife off my keychain), the pen is the tool I use the most. I have a Fisher Space Bullet pen but it's not always in my pocket. The Swiss Army knife is.

The pen is small and not very comfortable but always-there trumps comfort in this case. I use the pen often, but not for long, so the ink lasts a very long time. Refills are available, if a bit hard to find.

The model with the pen is not available everywhere, so you may need to search around a bit. It's also a bit of a conversation piece -- hardly anyone has seen it before and they always want one.

-- Moe Rubenzahl

Swiss Army Replacement Ball Point Pen
Blue Ink
Available from Swiss Knife Shop

Swiss Army Signature Pocket Knife (w/ pen)

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Victorinox


Free money, especially for women...

One-third of Canadian adults pay no income taxes http://fr.canoe.ca/money/mymoney/canada/tax/archives/2011/04/20110429-111031.html

Tim Hortons and Starbucks, check this out...

Cool Tools update

Clever Coffee Dripper

Posted: 09 May 2011 09:00 AM PDT

I've used this manual drip cone for a year now. It adds yet another twist to the seemingly simple task of brewing coffee. I've used the previously reviewed Melitta cone as well as everything from the previously reviewed Aeropress to a French Press.

This drip cone is, well, clever. It combines the ease and cleanliness of drip brewing with the long extraction of french press brewing. The difference is a spring loaded stopper on the bottom of the cone. To brew coffee you add a paper filter, coffee and hot water. Instead of placing the cone over your cup immediately, the spring loaded stopper keeps the coffee inside until you place the cone on a mug to lift up the stopper and drain your brew.

This difference allows you to directly control the immersion time of the brew to your taste. The result is a wonderfully rich and full cup of coffee. Previous versions were lacking one key feature: a lid, and required you to place a plate or saucer over the cone to keep the coffee hot while it brewed. The newer version is perfect with a built in lid.

I didn't think I needed yet another tool for brewing coffee, but I'm hooked on the Clever Dripper now.

--Tim Hollosy

The Clever Coffee Dripper works like the other previously reviewed cone filter drip coffee makers except for one variation: it also acts as an immersion brewer. A simple gasket on the bottom of the Dripper enables the brewer to immerse the water and coffee together for as long as they would like before they begin the process of filtering.

In my opinion being able to control immersion makes for a superior cup of coffee compared to other available methods. I used the previously reviewed Aeropress for several years, and find that I prefer the Clever Coffee Dripper for my daily coffee ritual. I even prefer the cups that I have made to the cups that come out of the sophisticated (not to mention expensive) Clover machines, but that could be my own desire for strong coffee not being met by the barista who uses the machine.

There are different opinions about the amount of coffee, immersion time, amount of water, and water temperature that make the ideal cup of coffee. I find that I prefer a very strong cup, and use less water then recommended per gram of coffee, and immerse the coffee and water together a bit longer than recommended on Sweet Marias. A scale + grinder + clever dripper can get you brewing amazing coffee at a very affordable price point with the added bonus of complete user control over the brewing process.

--Aaron S

[Note: Sweet Maria's has put together a tip sheet (PDF) for using the clever coffee dripper that explains some of the chemistry behind extraction. -- OH]

Clever Coffee Dripper

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Handy Brew


Sage Maths

chart graph funny cute

Sage Maths is free open source software for doing virtually every type of maths you can imagine. Not just numerical maths, but symbolic maths too - you can give Sage an equation and it will tell you what the equation of its integral or differential is, for example. And it will do numerical maths, plot graphs, analyze statistical information and solve equations or sets of equations. In fact, it will do virtually anything mathematical you can think of.

Sage was developed as an open source alternative to commercial systems like Mathematica and Matlab (it has most but not all of the functionality of both) because mathematicians and scientists need to be able to understand and review the algorithms their software uses - something not possible with a closed system.

Originally developed for graduate mathematicians, Sage is now at the stage where it is useful and interesting to professional and hobbyist mechanical and electronic engineers, amateur astronomers, business number crunchers, and people who just want to know more maths than they do. It runs on Linux, Windows and OS X, and lately people have managed to run it on both Apple iThings and Android smartphones. -- Jonathan Coupe

Sage Maths

Available from Sage

Smart, Digital Flash cards Maximize Study Time

school cram fast easy

Flashcard apps tend to be imitations of their physical counterparts. Instead of flipping a card over to reveal an answer, users click or swipe.

Not so with Brainscape. The company uses the digital platform to tweak the flashcard model with proven learning strategies. Questions in Brainscape apps require recall, not multiple-choice selections, ask users to reflect on answers by noting their confidence in them, and use those confidence grades to determine how often each card should be spaced in a deck.

Brainscape founder Andrew Cohen, who has a master’s degree in education technology, conducted a study with 10 Columbia students to compare the effectiveness of what he calls “confidence-based repetition” to normal flashcards. After the students studied material for 30 minutes, students who used Brainscape scored higher on an assessment than students who used flashcards.


Spicy antioxidants...

Cool Tools update

Vic Firth Pump and Grind Pepper Mill

Posted: 06 May 2011 11:40 AM PDT

I never go anywhere without my portable pepper mill. I have one stashed in my desk and another in the glove box, and still another couple in the kitchen. Trader Joe's sells an outstanding disposable model for a couple bucks, but by far my favorite is the thumb-operated pump mill made by Vic Firth.

The sleek designed cylindrical metal and glass device stands 5-1/2-inches tall, and you can tell from its weight that it's a serious tool. Fill the tube with peppercorns, push the plunger, and presto! Delicious, calorie-free pepper.

Here's the thing about pepper. It improves just about everything: Steamed vegetables, salads, brown rice, popcorn (try it!), cheese, meat. Whatever you're eating, it will get a real pick-me-up from fresh ground pepper. The stuff that comes out of ordinary pepper shakers bears no relation to pepper, and it might as well be cardboard.

I don't go anywhere without my pocket pepper mill. My husband cracks wise that I should have a holster for my pepper mill. Not a bad idea! My son's girlfriend has even taken to calling me "Pepper Mom".

Vic Firth Pump and Grind Pepper Mill

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Vic Firth Gourmet