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Cool Tools For Fathers' Day

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In the background, hear Groucho Marx singing:

"Today, Father, is Father's Day… and we're getting you a tie.
The tie that we got didn't cost such a lot…
And anyway, you're a regular guy.
We knew didn't want us to bother…
We knew you didn't want us to fuss…
But according to our Mother you're our Father…
And that's good enough for us…"

Even though Mother's Day is fast upon us and Father's Day is still weeks away, I humbly suggest that it is important for Fathers to begin the lobbying process so we can have a prayer of getting something close to what we want. If you are the beneficiary of one of these hardworking Father-types, you cannot go wrong with a digital camera (think Casio or Canon); a newer handheld organizer (think Palm's new Zires); or an MP3 music player (think iPod.) However, before you "surprise" your beloved Father, do a little subtle investigation as to what he really wants. The best way to do this subtly is to shout, "Hey, Pop, whaddaya want for Father's Day?" Without hesitation or embarrassment, your relieved Father will happily articulate precisely what and where to get the object of his desire.
This approach should suffice for most Father-types. However, some especially particular fellows truly go overboard, looking for the coolest and most functional tools imaginable. These impossible-to-shop-for-Pops need a little guidance themselves. Therefore, to help such Fathers-in-need, a couple of suggestions of tools I love and places to find perfect gifts. We will look at fine wearables (clothes and shoes); a great watch that watches your news and more; the ultimate headset; and some unusual approaches to dealing with computers. We are talking about some "Cool Tools" here…

"Cool Tools"
Years ago, Stewart Brand, with Kevin Kelly, turned their "Whole Earth Catalogue" into the ultimate bible of tools. Today, writer and photographer Kevin Kelly, with help from his many friends continues this search for essential objects with his on-line compendium "Cool Tools." This ongoing web-obsession offers an astounding collection of must have devices compiled by passionate gadget nuts. Last year's "Cool Tools" book would also be a great way to begin the proper Father's Day search (and is an excellent present by itself.)

5.11 Tactical Shirt
Trust me; Dad does not want a tie. He wants a shirt, or more precisely, the "5.11 Tactical Long Sleeve Shirt." This shirt solves the question "Where does the person who has everything put everything?" This shirt, designed for the law enforcement market, has more pockets than I know what to do with. So, as I carry my GPS, glasses, pens, cell phones, pagers, organizers, digital cameras, I still have room in the same shirt for the five other devices that must come along. Made of a tough all-cotton weave, 5.11 shirts look good in the office and are functional in the workshop. Keep the long sleeves rolled up with handy sleeve stays; keep the collar buttoned in place by the neat hidden collar tabs. Most of the exquisite and functional features (like air vents for the underarms and the back) remain subtle and hidden. After hearing raves about this shirt on "Cool Tools" from Stewart Brand and others, I bought more than a half dozen, and now my Spring fashion line-up is complete. (About $35)

Merrell's Orbit Moc Gore-Tex Shoes
To put it mildly, clothes and shoes are not my usual beat but these are, without a doubt, the greatest shoes ever made. There are two kinds of people: those who wear Merrells and those who will soon be wearing them. That is because Merrell's "Orbit Moc's" are go-anywhere, wear-everywhere ultra-comfortable waterproof breathable shoes. Try on a pair; you will toss away your other shoes. The black leather suede uppers look great in any office work environment and yet these Moc's are strong and lightweight for serious hiking. I proudly wear Merrells with a tuxedo to formal events. In the winter, the Gore-Tex gets you through the slush... in the summer, the shoes breathe wonderfully. The rugged sole provides great traction and literally takes years to show any significant wear. Maintenance free, polish-free, hassle free, Merrell's Orbit Moc has a terrific feel. My wife's complaint is that I keep buying more of them but never throw the oldest pairs out. I do not see why I should: even five years later, they still look and feel great. Merrell makes many shoes, and other models are quite comfortable, but these Orbit Mocs are the best. (About $120 a pair.)

PalmOne's Zire 31 and Zire 72 Handhelds
Today, PalmOne launched two new Zire handhelds and, although they may appear to just be yet another evolutionary step in the Palm line, the terrific combination of reasonable price and full functionality make these revolutionary and darn great gifts for Dads. (Moms, too, but we're talking about Fathers here, ok?) First, when the Zire series originally came out I complained that the lowest priced models had too little memory and too few features to ever be successful.

Well, Palm says they were successful despite my warnings, but they seemed to listen anyway and their new Zire 31 is both reasonably priced (under $150) and full of the most useful features. First, the screen is in color and looks great. Secondly, it has 16 MB of RAM, which means you can store enough addresses, memos, contacts, documents, and even pictures, without running out of space. If you do, there's a handy expansion slot for an SD card, which lets you do even more fun things, like put MP3s on your Palm. Naturally, if you want to listen to such music, you'll need a stereo jack, which the Zire 31 happily has. When I first saw this handheld, I could barely contain my joy for Palm, because I believed they finally had the complete package: speed, memory, nice color screen, stereo sound, expansion port, and best of all, a reasonable price. So, for the Dad who is in need of a little organizing, and which Dad isn't, this one's for you.

Of course, if you love your Dad a little bit more than $150 (try $299), step up to PalmOne's higher-end Zire 72. This adds a 1.2 megapixel camera so you can also record stills and video. With 32 MB of internal RAM, the Zire 72 also features Bluetooth connectivity, so you can use it to send photos and documents to Bluetooth enabled printers and wireless phones directly. Again, this handheld organizer also doubles as a MP3 music player and "media center" with a lovely screen, though I still haven't figured out how I would watch "Gone With The Wind" on one of these. I still vastly prefer the Palm OS to the clunkier Microsoft Pocket PC version. So, mein kinder, this is would be a very nice gift for that special Dad this Father's Day.

Suunto N3: The MSN Direct Watch
Avid gadget fans will surely know about Suunto, the fine Finnish company that has been making top-notch compasses for decades. Fond of compasses, I soon graduated to collecting the stylish and well-designed Suunto watches over the last five years. Many of these watches offer barometers, thermometers, altimeters, and digital compasses, etc. Several models also link to heart rate monitors which is especially handy for joggers. My latest passion from Suunto is the N3 watch with MSN Direct. This gigantic radio-receiving rechargeable timepiece uses the somewhat under-appreciated MSN Direct information service. Now I get the latest news, weather, sports scores, and other useful continuously updated information delivered to my wrist.

Microsoft poured a fortune marketing these MSN Direct watches but there was early negative criticism (based almost completely on the very buggy early Fossil watch received by most critics). This led some to conclude the system is a lemon. Indeed, some services promised by MSN Direct have proven to be inadequate: send instant messages to the watch is particularly difficult and unreliable. Because the watch is simply a receiver and not a transmitter, there is no way to respond to such messages anyway… a glaringly obvious flaw. These watches do have to be recharged rather frequently because they're constantly receiving radio signals.

Nevertheless, Suunto's N3 is a joy to wear: time is constantly synchronized to an atomic clock; news headlines are handy and the stock quotes/charts are updated frequently. You can, with a fair amount of effort, set up your calendar from Outlook so your appointments are synchronized to your watch. Having the three-day weather forecast, dew point, high/low temperature, barometric pressure, and other information becomes indispensable. Remember, these MSN Direct watches are decidedly not two-way communicating devices, and key information, like contacts and notes, are not available on these watches yet. Because MSN Direct relies on a customized radio network, mostly set up in large urban areas, devotees of long wilderness camping trips will find these watches useless outside the coverage areas. However, that is when I would swap the N3 for Suunto's "Advizor" watch, which also keeps great time and offers the barometer, altimeter, thermometer, and compass, etc. Suunto N3 is costs about $ 280 and one-year subscription to MSN Direct is about $59.

Fossil's Dick Tracy Watch
Another good MSN Direct watch, this one made by Fossil, is the "Wrist Net Dick Tracy Watch", which has a very retro design and features neat cartoon messages from the Chief and Tracy's girl. My kids think this watch is the coolest thing on earth, especially now that sports scores are available. Fossil's "Dick Tracy" watch costs $199.

theBoom Noise Canceling Headset
This delightful headset is perfect for any cell phone and stays snug even on heads as misshapen as mine. The wire-embedded-in-plastic design means the headset can be molded and adjusted... something that cannot be done with other headsets. Best of all, theBoom uses active noise cancellation technology to allow for clear communication even in the noisiest of places. For example, this headset is now widely used on rambunctious stock market trading floors. When I tested this with a friend, his voice came through clearly, even though he was in a room with both the stereo and televisions blasting away so loudly he could not hear his own voice. The clarity on the listeners' side was perfect.

The headset comes with two jack cables: one for standard cell phones and another for Nokia cell phones that use a slightly different connector. In addition, purchased separately, a jack cable can connect theBoom directly to a computer "mini" microphone input and audio output. A very cool feature is the clever magnetic clip that attaches the theBoom earpiece unit: you can quickly detach and swing the earpiece unit around so it works for the opposite ear. Costs $149.99.

Humidor Computer
Now, this is a truly unusual and wonderfully entertaining Father's Day present: the Humidor Computer, custom-made by Jeffrey Stephenson. Hidden inside an art deco style humidor (which can store 150 fresh Cohibas) is a computer, broadband modem, and wireless router. Since each of these remarkable machines is handmade and customized to your requirements, the computer specs can be whatever you want them to be. One thing is certain; you will end up with a unique looking computer… one that takes "multi-tasking" to an entirely new dimension and one that matches your decor. Why have an ugly box with wires sticking out everywhere in the middle of the den, if instead, your computer can be camouflaged inside an elegant object d'art? Each piece is custom made starting at $2,000.

IBM's Mini Optical 3-Button "Travel Wheel Mouse"
For those on a more frugal budget, IBM's Mini Optical "Travel Wheel Mouse" is a lovely little take-it-with-you mouse that packs full functionality into a tiny package. For $29 bucks, you get a terrific, small, well-designed optical mouse. Most mice are a nuisance to use on uneven surfaces when you are traveling with that laptop, but this sweet black tiny USB mouse is a simple pleasure. What more can I say: it works wherever you need it and it is so much better than the impossible to use pointing devices built into the laptop. When your Dad is working on the road, he will love you for finding him this functional little beauty.

FireFly Lighted Keyboard
Here's a USB keyboard that is ultra-slim, gorgeous, and solves a problem I never knew I had: how to find the typing keys in the dark. The FireFly Lighted keyboard uses a wonderful "electro luminescent" technology to cast a lovely blue-lighted glow on keys. Typing is now much easier on the eyes. Now, I can work late into the night, usually in almost total darkness, except for the light from my glowing flat screen and glowing keyboard. Even if the lights are on, I prefer this good looking, stylish, keyboard and genuinely prefer the gentle sapphire blue-lighted keys and the quiet action. Good for quiet nighttime web-surfing and emailing when the rest of the world is sleeping or should be. Under $80.

Creative Prodikeys DM Dual Keyboard
Here is another innovative keyboard design, ideal for that musical hacker and MIDI-enthusiast. The dual keyboard integrates 37 piano-like keys with a standard PC keyboard. Available in Beige or Black, the Creative Prodikeys DM keyboard comes at a perfect time: when many new and easy to use MIDI music creation programs have hit the desktop. Using the accompanying software, you can play, produce and record music directly on your home computer. Before I found this extraordinary keyboard, I planned to get a separate MIDI keyboard, but this fine unit eliminates the need for two different keyboards on your desk. Special keys adjust volume, pitch blend, and start the music software application. Under $99.

Now that we've given a great deal of thought to what we would like for Father's Day, most Moms out there can fairly point out Mother's Day is coming a whole lot sooner. But, like all Fathers, I'm going to decide what to give my beloved at the absolute last moment. Hopefully, she'll just tell me what she wants… or, with her usual despair and disgust at my gift-giving ability, she may just buy something thoughtful for herself.

By Daniel Dubno