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Magic Melamine Sponges and Erasers

16 October, by mark[ —]

A 2007 Cool Tools review of Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser raved about its ability to remove smudge marks from walls that other cleaners couldn’t touch. The price then for a 4-pack was $6, or $1.50 apiece. The current cost of a Magic Eraser 4-pack on Amazon is $3.57 (the in-store cost is about $1 higher). That’s about $0.89 apiece.

For Prime members, Mr. Clean sells a textured, extra-durable (“50% Stronger to Last Longer”) 4-pack for $5.34, or $1.34 apiece. Mr. Clean also sells a 2-pack of bathroom-scrubber pads for $2.97, or $1.48 apiece. It contains a soap/scum -dissolving chemical. There are now sellers of similar products in various quantities (“packs”) for much lower prices, such as 50₵ apiece, or 40₵ each for a 100-pack. To see them, search Amazon for “melamine sponge.”

Slightly more expensive (64₵ apiece in a $15.95 25-pack), but a better value, is an “extra durable” version with a stable, blue-colored middle layer that deters softening and crumbling. It also has a conjured (S-shaped) grip and a textured surface. It is sold by a couple of vendors, the one I prefer being “Oh My Clean,” which is rated highest by Amazon reviewers at 4.6 stars.

If you’re doubtful about paying $16 for so many of an unknown item, pick up a 4-pack of the Mr. Clean brand and test how often you find a use for them. Also, check out the uses described in numerous enthusiastic YouTube videos (and in comments on Amazon product pages). They can be found by searching for “melamine sponges erasers.” Such uses include this (from a vendor): “Dirty old sneakers are white again. Scuffed up baseboards look like new. The coffee stain inside your favorite mug is gone.” And this (from a user): “clean your car’s interior, Door Panel, Dash, Console, Leather or Leather like Material, and Outside black trim to remove those stubborn wax marks around black trimming.”

Caution #1: I suspect these melamine sponges — or at least the Mr. Clean alternatives — are subject to occasional glitches in production that lead to bad batches. For instance, one customer who complained about fragile sponges was sent a replacement package and reported that it worked fine.

Caution #2: PG warns: “Test a small area with light pressure before use. Not recommended for the following surfaces: high gloss, polished, dark, brushed, satin, faux, bare/polished wood, copper, stainless steel, non-stick coating, or vehicle body.” Some cosmetic damage will follow. However, it may be less noticeable or damaging (except in the case of an auto body) than the smudge the product removes. That’s been my experience.

Caution #3: PG also warns: “Rinse required for surfaces in direct contact with food.”

-- Roger Knights

Extra Durable Magic Cleaning Eraser Sponge , 25-pack ($16)

Available from Amazon

Mobile Plug Inverter

16 October[ —]

You plug this solid-state inverter into your car’s lighter socket and power whatever 110 volt AC appliance you want, 75 watts max. No need for special DC gadgets. It’s made for recharging cell phones and other batteries, but I’ve used it for my scanner and my printer while on the road. Also, I’ve run a small black-and-white TV set, and more important, my baby’s bottle heater (I admit is a small one). You can power almost anything that doesn’t use large resistance like hair dryers, waffle makers, bread toasters, small ovens. I haven’t tried a coffee maker yet.

The same company offers an assorted line of automobile inverters with more output power (200 watts on up). This is the smallest one.

-- Juan J Gil

[This Cool Tools Favorite from 2004 is no longer available, but this Bestek inverter is a highly-rated substitute.]

Bestek 75W Power Inverter DC 12V to 110V AC Car Inverter with 3.1A 2 USB Ports ($18)

Available from Amazon

Blade Runner 2049/Lynda for free/Bear

15 October, by Kevin Kelly[ —]

World building
For science-fiction buffs, I highly recommend the new Blade Runner sequel. It is less a movie and more of an experience. It feels like an immersion into virtual reality without 3D. The unmusical sound track, slow-pace editing (it runs almost 3 hours!), breathtaking visual details, all deliver a stunning alternative world, with even more persuasion than its famous prequel. The plot is merely a vehicle for the main character: this totally felt world. Worth seeing on a big screen with full-scale sound. — KK

Lynda for free
Lynda.com has an excellent collection of training videos for learning programming, design, bitcoin fundamentals, bookkeeping, and much more. Lynda charges a monthly fee, but if you have a library card, the chances are you can become a Lynda member for free. Here’s a link to Lynda (and other great stuff, like the digital edition of the New York Times) for free. — MF

Pretty note app
I use Evernote for work and personal note keeping, but I have to admit Bear, which is referred to as the “beautiful writing app”, is more enjoyable to use on my phone. It’s so clean and pretty and easy to format. I’ve been using it as a daily journal and for poem writing. — CD

IKEA as platform
People have been hacking Ikea furniture forever, customizing and upgrading its modular units. Now Ikea has become a platform that high-end designers create skins for. You buy the economical guts of an Ikea kitchen, shelving, or a sofa, and then apply new doors, or handles, countertops, fabrics created by legendary designers. This is a great New York Times summary article describing the ecosystem with links to the many companies that offer refined design layers for the Ikea platform. — KK

Learning game for preschoolers
My three-year-old brother is obsessed with watching Youtube on his iPad and playing app games. I wanted to find a non-tech activity that he would have fun playing with and maybe learn something. The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game — a color matching game — was fun for both of us! You spin a spinner, you pick up acorns and you try to be the first to collect all the colors. He practiced saying all his colors out loud and worked on his motor skills with the squirrel squeezer. He also learned to “cheat” by landing on the “sneaky squirrel” and being allowed to steal acorns. It was really cute. — CD

Small parts storage
My daughter and I have converted part of the family room into a maker space. We needed something to hold and organize lots of small parts, and that didn’t eat up a lot of tabletop space. This $28 cabinet with 44 drawers was just what we wanted. It’s tall, but some double-sided tape on the bottom has anchored it to the table to prevent tipping over. — MF


Get the Recomendo weekly newsletter a week early by email.

-- Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder, Claudia Dawson

Razor Tooth Pruning Saw

15 October[ —]

I am shocked at how long it took me to figure out the virtues of a pruning saw. For three decades I have sweated with a regular hand saw to lop off hefty tree branches, tidy up firewood, trim Christmas tree stumps, and cut down shrubs. (Trimming branches is really not a place for a mini-chain saw even if I had one). Yet month after month my regular saw would bind up in green, wet or frozen wood.

On principle I avoid one-job tools, which is what a pruning saw sounded like. However when I finally got a pruning saw it was like a hot knife slicing through buttery wood. I don’t think it matters much what brand you get. I now have two: a folding 7″ Coleman I take car camping, and a 13″ Corona Curved I use for landscaping at home. The wolfishly large teeth bite off visible chips without binding, and in no time the wettest, greenest wood is cut. But you already knew this, right?

-- KK

[This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2004]

13″ Corona Curved Pruning Saw ($23)

Available from Amazon

Nicole Harkin, Writer and Photographer

https://ilequipment.com/products/velo-orange-pass-stow-rackbagplay episode download
13 October, by cooltools[ —]

We have hired an editor to edit the Cool Tools podcast. It costs us $300 a month. So far, Cool Tools listeners have pledged $296 a month to the podcast. Please consider supporting us on Patreon. We have nice rewards for people who contribute! – MF

Our guest this week is Nicole Harkin. Nicole lives in Washington, DC with her family. She recently published her first book, Tilting: A Memoir, and she’s currently working on a mystery set in Berlin. She also runs a small photography business focused on family portraiture. She is from Montana and before becoming a writer worked in government oversight.

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:

Yuba elMundo LUX ($3800)
“My bike is the mini-van version of the cargo bike. The most amazing thing about my bike is how much more interaction I have not only with my environment but also with my kids. I have my bike outfitted with one giant pannier and the ‘Monkey Bars.’ I have had up to four kids on the bike at once but generally ride with my two boys. However, the bike can carry, in addition to the rider, 440 lbs. Mine is the 2nd version I believe. They are now on the V5. My bike has Bionx system. My battery is a bit older and I unfortunately have to charge it anytime I stop riding. I have the Rack Bag for the front ‘bread basket.’ It’s waterproof and holds my phone safely for me.”

Yama Glass 8-Cup Stovetop Coffee Siphon ($51)
“My husband and I have two small children. Before kids we made pour overs every morning…well Brent made them for us. When the kids came along we switched to the Technovorm Moccamaster, which is a lovely machine. I had the siphon on my Amazon wish list and my mother-in-law purchased it for us. To our utter surprise, we have started using the siphon for our daily coffee. It takes less time than the pour over and makes substantially better coffee than the Moccamaster. For two cups of coffee it is perfect. We use four scoops of beans and eight ounces of water per cup of coffee. First, you fill the coffee pot with water, put the siphon on top, and bring to a boil. There is a filter with a metal chain already in the top of the siphon. Once the water is boiling, you put the coffee grounds into the top and the water will climb up the chain into the upper glass siphon. Once it has boiled for two minutes, you turn it off and the cooling water in the pot reverses the vacuum pulling the hot water back down through the coffee. …. One weird thing though is you have to keep the filter in the refrigerator in water.”

The Windi Gas and Colic Reliever for Babies ($15) and Fridababy NoseFrida Nasal Aspirator ($19)
“Our kids are too big for these now, but when they were babies, these things were super helpful. Babies cry for four reasons: hunger, tired, diaper, gas. The Windi helps with the fourth. When a kid is sick and can’t breath well the snot sucker comes to the rescue. I think that people used to use a blue bulb thing to try to suck snot out, but those blue bulbs don’t really work well. This thing does. The company is Swedish. If you give this as a gift, the parents to be will look at you like you are crazy. But in a few months they will thank you.”

SodaStream Penguin Sparkling Water Maker ($200)
“After years of lugging cases of sparkling water into our third floor apartment, my husband asked for the Penguin for his birthday. We’ve never regretted it. I also once dropped the entire machine onto the floor. It naturally broke. I called Soda Stream, explained the situation, and they sent us a new one. So I recommend springing for the more expensive Williams Sonoma version rather than the cheaper versions. Additionally, I like that the carafes are glass rather than plastic.”


13 October, by mark[ —]

My job keeps me abroad and away from family, and I wanted an easy way to keep in touch with my little nephews as they grow up. They’re not old enough to read or receive email, so I thought something tangible they could receive in the mail would be a good idea.

The best service I found for one-off postcards is TouchNote. I signed up on their website and paid for some “credits,” and then whenever I want to send a card, I just choose some photos from my phone and add a little message and address, and the kids get a physical card. There are several photo configurations available, and you can add a caption on the front or a paragraph on the back.

The cards cost $1.70 to $1.99 each (including shipping), depending on how many credits you buy at once, and occasionally they have sales for bulk purchases.

I feel that this has really helped me keep in touch with the kids even though I don’t see them often. When I finally got to see my little nephew in person, he treated me – -and the little characters I had posed in the photos — as familiar friends.

Of course you could also use the service for other things, such as thank you notes, Christmas cards, move announcements, etc. They also have greeting card options which I haven’t used. I researched several similar services before I settled on this one, which I have been using for about eight months. The others I tried either required using a very slow website or just weren’t that easy to use. This one has nice layouts and sending a card is extremely quick. The app is available for iOS and Android.

-- Maria B


SmartGlass Pie Pan

12 October, by mark[ —]

The Creo SmartGlass Pie Pan is available in four colors (blue, red, green, and gray). It’s rated 4.3 stars on 10 Amazon reviews. (Its rating was pulled down by a three-star reviewer who somehow paid four times its current cost and felt it was overpriced.)

What I like about it is not its pie-making prowess (I don’t bake), but that its high perimeter makes it safe and easy to eat other food away from a table, as I prefer doing. It keeps the contents safely inside even when it’s not at a perfectly horizontal surface, such as when on my lap. The high edge also allows me to eat with only a single utensil, a large (dessert) spoon — provided I’ve cut the food up first. (The finish can stand up to such cutting: I have sawed away at meat and potatoes with a seated knife while pressing down on them with a fork.)

It doesn’t become excessively warm in the microwave, and its two ear-like handles warm even less, so it can be dug into immediately. It has a non-scalloped rim, which makes it less fragile and easier to clean. It’s lightweight, and it costs less than most other pie dishes: $11.

-- Roger Knights

Creo SmartGlass Pie Pan, 9-Inch ($11)

Available from Amazon

Dumbo ShotBot [Maker Update #55]

11 October, by mark[ —]

This week on Maker Update, a shot-pouring elephant, Arduino and ARM, 3d printed linear motion, and Too $hort cat. This week’s Cool Tool is Long Nose 4-inch Vise Grip Pliers. Show notes here.

-- Donald Bell

New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles

11 October, by mark[ —]

The most obvious use for an anthology of quotations is as a source of a cleverly-worded phrase that summarizes an idea you are trying to convey to an audience or reader. But there’s a second use that seems to me to be far more valuable. A really good book of quotations is the result of some editor’s lifetime habit of carefully collecting the best-worded tidbits of wisdom that he or she has encountered. The best collections are therefore always published, late in life, by editors who are themselves voracious readers. In essence, they are the distillation of all the wisdom that these editors have ever encountered.

The very best anthology I’ve ever used is H.L. Mencken’s “New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles, from Ancient and Modern Sources,” first published in 1942. This anthology is so useful that I own two copies — one at home, and one at work. I keep my copies in a convenient spot, and peruse them whenever I have a few idle minutes.

Mencken, who died in 1956, is nearly forgotten today. But in his own day, he was America’s leading literary critic, and was astonishingly well-read. He published the Dictionary after forty years as a writer and critic, selecting 25,000 snippets for his 1347-page book. Unlike most anthologies, this one is organized alphabetically, by keyword. Within each keyword, entries are organized chronologically, by the year in which they were written or spoken. Thus, for example, the fifty-two quotations under the heading “Youth and Age” start with ten from the ancient Greeks and Romans, followed by several from Shakespeare and his contemporaries, eight each from 18th and 19th-century authors. Nine undated proverbs from different national traditions round out the selection.

The keyword arrangement is genuinely useful, since it captures many thought-provoking ideas in capturing in one place.

Here, for example, are a few selections from the “Youth and Age” section:

– Euripides: “If we could be twice young and twice old we could correct all our mistakes”

– Shakespeare (Henry IV): “A man can not more separate age and covetousness than he can part young limbs and lechery”

– John Ray (1670 AD): “They who would be young when they are old, must be old when they are young”

– Robert Browning: “What youth deemed crystal, age finds out was dew.”

– French proverb: “Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.”

The most recent reprint, from about thirty years ago, was $50 when it was new, but used copies at Amazon can be found for as little as $8. [Price for used copies on Amazon has shot up to $40 since we ran this review. If you wait a while, the price will likely drop. — MF]

It has one disadvantage: Having never been updated, it contains no material less than seventy-five years old. That’s not a problem for subjects like love or death, which were the same to the Ancients as they are to us. But for subjects of more recent vintage, like most technologies and much science, the Dictionary is of no use at all.

-- Scott Reid

[Archive.org will loan this book to you for free, in a variety of ebook formats.]

A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources
by H.L. Mencken
1352 pages, 1942

Available from Amazon

1/4-Inch Dual-Drive Mini Ratchet Driver

10 October, by mark[ —]

Inspired by the recent 1/4″ hex ratchet review, I am posting the one I use. Maxcraft is not a big name in tools, but this little guy is a gem. It is a chrome-plated, drop-forged chrome vanadium steel ratchet wrench with a cushion overmolded handle, 72-tooth ratchet gear (which is good), and BOTH a 1/4″ hex socket AND a 1/4″ square drive for sockets. It is tiny, about 4″ long. I got it for bicycle work.


  • Unlike the wrench reviewed on Oct. 5, 2017, this one takes standard 1/4″ hex bits, the kind you already have spilling out of your toolboxes. That makes the bits easy and cheap to replace. It also gives you access to all sorts of weirdo bits you don’t need often, like Torx security, tri-point, Pozidrive, etc. Of course, a standard screwdriver-style bit holder will do that too, but not all of them ratchet, and this style offers far greater torque than the screwdriver-style handle.
  • It is quite sturdy, being solid forged steel. Most other 1/4″ hex ratchets are riveted sheet steel. I have one of those too, but I never use it. It is wobbly and cheap-feeling.
  • The 72-tooth ratchet gear means you only have to swing the wrench 5 degrees to get some progress. That is a feature of many high-quality ratchet wrenches, but is rare in such a small, cheap wrench.
  • It is far more comfortable to use than the sheet-metal cheapies. With a tip like Torx or square drive that won’t cam out, you can really crank down with this thing, even though the handle is short. It is certainly powerful enough for bicycle work.
  • The 1/4″ square drive is surprisingly handy. I got this wrench specifically to work on my bike, because I hate (really, really hate) standard L-shaped hex keys, which are flimsy, fixed angle, and to use them you have to remove and reinsert them repeatedly. Ball-end hex keys are better, but still have no torque.) But it turns out I couldn’t find a metric ball-head hex bit set with 1/4″ hex shafts. (They are available individually.) I could only find a set in 1/4″ “sockets.” So the socket drive turned out to be handy. Being able to ratchet ball-end hex bits is about 3 million times stronger, faster, and more convenient than the old L-shaped pieces of wire I used to use.
  • It is cheap. It costs just over $6. There might be nicer wrenches from Chapman, Wiha, etc., but they cost more, and sometimes a lot more. On Amazon it is an “Add-on item,” meaning your total order has to be more than $25. I don’t find that a difficulty.


  • It isn’t really low-clearance. The square drive socket shaft adds some depth to the head, so with a 1″ bit loaded, it is about 1 1/2″ from the tip of the bit to the tip of the socket shaft. It is also a little bulkier around the head than the sheet metal versions. So if I really needed a low-clearance model, I’d spend a bit more money for a nice Chapman set, or cheap out and get Neiko or MulWark. (I would have bought a Chapman set, but they don’t come with ball-end hex bits.) And for ultra-low clearance situations, there are drivers from Snap-On and others that look like tongue depressors with a tiny tip of a bit glued to one face. (They must be murder to use in Phillips or slotted, because it is impossible to put any downward pressure on the driver tip.)
  • If it matters at all, it is heavier than the sheet-metal cheapies.

So in sum, it is a cheap, sturdy, comfortable, cheap, versatile, well-made, cheap wrench that uses cheap, varied and widely available 1/4″ bits, that is stronger but bulkier than the sheet metal ratchet wrenches. With the right bits it is so much better than those dinky L-shaped pieces of wire called hex “wrenches” that you will never look back.

-- Karl Chwe

Maxcraft 60199 1/4-Inch Dual-Drive Mini Ratchet Driver ($6)

Available from Amazon

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