Keep the Party Rolling With These Japanese Ice Ball Molds

While bartenders across the globe are fattening trade books with new cocktails, in Japan they work with determination to perfect the classics. From the actual spirits, to the size and shape of the serving glasses, Japanese bartenders tweak each detail in an attempt to continuously improve upon what is already considered near perfection.

One such innovation is Japanese ice balls. These balls are traditionally hand cut (check out the video below) as part of the 20+ year training process for new bartenders.

The large ice balls have less surface area than chunks of regular ice cubes from the tray. This, in addition to the compactness of the ice ball, causes it to stay cooler longer. The size and shape of the ice ball slow the melt time and allow you to enjoy your drink cold and undiluted…

… Or it would if you have the cash for a traditional, gravity-powered ice ball maker (shown at work in the video below). As nifty as these things are, 55 – 80 mm ice ball makers range in price from a steep $1,085 to a perilously steep $1,649. Not cheap!

But before you hang your head and resign yourself to a life of watered-down cocktails (or take out a second mortgage to purchase a traditional ice ball maker), listen to this. You can get your hands on this amazing Japanese ice-magic here at Useful Things!

Our BP-free plastic ice ball mold delivers the Japanese ice ball experience without any of the labor or cash expenses of a machine or visit to a high end Japanese bar. These cleverly constructed ice ball molds open in two places. The tab on the top opens to allow you to fill the mold with water, and the mold itself opens in half allowing the frozen ice ball to slide out.  Simply fill with water, freeze, and – かんぱい! That’s kanpai, or ‘cheers’ in Japanese.

Elegant and Educational: Our Favorite Infographics

A well-designed infographic is the perfect blend of brains and beauty. Data visualization allows us to experience facts in a way that is often more easily digested than getting the information from a magazine, or hearing it from a newscaster. Here are a few of our favorite infographics in no particular order.

1. U.S. Education Spending and Performance vs. The World by Mat@USC
This infographic may be a little tough to look at depending on where you’re from. Proof that simply pouring cash into education doesn’t necessarily improve scores.

2. Conversation Prism by Brian Solis and JESS3
This infographic is famous among social media marketing trainees because of how clearly and extensively it organizes a variety of social websites.

3. Coffee Drinks Illustrated by Lokesh Dhakar
Next time you’re in a fancy-pants coffee place, don’t fret. A quick review of this handy guide before stepping out will prevent you from ordering a Latte when what you really wanted was a Breve.

4. What People Are Doing Online featured in Business Week
Are you a creator, critic, collector, joiner, spectator, or inactive (lazy bones!)?

5. Our Favorite Drugs featured in GOOD
Are the regional preferences for illicit substances what you would expect?

6. Visualizing U.S./China Trade Relations featured on
Trade imbalances, consumption, big money, oh my!

7. Fanboys: A Field Guide featured in PCWorld
Fanboy traits listed out by their turn-ons, heros, music preferences, and more. Where do you stand?

8. Farmville vs. Real Farms by Shane Snow for Mashable
Playing Farmville and running a real farm are different. Duh. But just how different? Well, for example, the average FarmVille player is a middle-aged woman making about $50,000 per year. An average farmer is an old man making $20,000 less per year than his strawberry harvesting digital counterpart.

9. Breakdown of Average Student Budget featured on Westwood College website
The $57 average price tag on a new textbook seems surprisingly low.

10. Height featured on xkcd
Pop Quiz! Do you know how far out in the galaxy the Edge of Federation Sector 0-0-1 is? Answer: About 1 parsec.

This is by no means an extensive list of infographics. If we’ve missed one and you’re absolutely indignant about it, don’t have a cow, man. Leave a link in the comments.

If you simply can’t get enough of infographics, check out this ( list of the 20 best infograph blogs.

Metro Maps from Around the World

Subway maps are like a city’s thumbprint– looking at one you can glean information about which parts of the city are most popular and heavily trafficked, in addition to discovering basic information about the city’s geographical structure. When designers sit down to draft subway maps, the focus is on accuracy and clarity, not necessarily aesthetics. Even so, the unique visual character of each city seems to bleed through. Here are a few of our favorite subway maps. Did we leave out one of your favorites? Tell us in the comments!

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Barcelona, Spain

Bangkok, Thailand

Beijing, China

Bielefeld, Germany

Prague, Czech Republic

Seoul, South Korea

St. Petersburg, Russia

Sydney, Australia

Tehran, Iran

Washington D.C., DC

For an extensive list of international maps, check out this site: The Subway Page.

What is good design?

At Useful Things, we’re always impressed by products that manage to seamlessly blend aesthetics and usability. But, aside from subjective preferences about color and shape, what makes one product more well designed than another similar product? Here are our three basic criteria.

ICOON Traveller's Language KitIs it functional?
Regardless of an object’s beauty, if it doesn’t do something useful it isn’t designed well. Good design takes the user from point A to point B easily, and with ingenious simplicity.

For example… ICOON, the traveller’s language kit, is both functional and delightful to look at. Flip to any page of ICOON to see rows of important objects organized meticulously into 12 groups. Communication becomes as easy as flipping to the correct page and pointing at what you want.

Is it relevant?
This takes functionality a step further. If an object is functional, it performs a certain useful task. If it’s relevant, it performs a certain taskthat’s especially necessary or urgent in its temporal or cultural context.

Eco Coffee MugFor example… The “I’m Not a Paper Cup” Eco Coffee Mug is one of our best sellers. What sets this travel mug apart from other similar products is it’s iconic look. The designers left the hip, minimalist design of the paper coffee cup alone, and focused instead on the materials the cup is composed of. The finished product is a brilliant combination of environmental awareness, functionality and aesthetics – a washable travel mug with that culturally relevant paper cup look.

Does it look good?
Sun Jar solar lightWhat makes good design different than good engineering is beauty. Good design occurs when the function-focused mind of an inventor converges with the visually obsessed imagination of the artist.

For example… The Sun Jar is a solar powered LED light encapsulated in a frosted mason jar. Leave it outside for a few hours in direct sunlight, and at nightfall the light will automatically flicker on providing a soft light for up to five hours. It’s a sustainable alternative to capturing a jar full of fireflies.