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ProfHacker Gift Guide 2013

It’s that time of year again. Finals are taking place, grades will be in soon, and we’re in the midst of the shopping rush for the holiday season. To help you on your way, here are our recommendations for the year. You might also be interested in our lists from 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009.

Happy shopping and do let us know if your giftees enjoyed any of our suggestions!

Adeline

  • If your loved one has a long commute, and there is no wifi on their train or bus, a MiFi device might be the answer. I recently sprung for a 4G MiFi device, given that during the semester I commute more than a few hours each day on the train. I have found that the device helps my productivity a ton–especially when much of my work involves either grading online, working on Google documents on collaborative projects, or answering emails.
  • Mac users who often find themselves running out of battery power without a power outlet would love the HyperJuice, the only external battery pack that works on a MacBook. Given the propensity of laptops to die on long-haul flights, a frequent flyer would thank you profusely for such a gift.
  • A fun gift idea: some credit to use the service StitchFix. After you fill out an extensive questionnaire about your style, the delivery service assigns you a personal stylist who will send you a box of five items as often as you would like. You pay $20 for your “style fix”, which goes towards the cost of any item in your box. I tried it out recently and was very impressed by what my stylist had chosen for me–very much in line with my own personal style, but with some unexpected items that I would have never picked out for myself. I wrote a review of the service a while back here.
  • Modcloth is a great site for attractive, reasonably-priced retro clothing. If purchasing clothes online makes your giftee uneasy, they can rest assure that shipping is free both ways, and that the site has a very comprehensive review system which is very helpful in gauging fit online.
  • Busy people would appreciate the gift of Amazon Prime, which gives you two-day shipping on any item for the year. The service also comes with a library of streaming videos and movies.
  • If your giftee likes surprises, he or she might enjoy the PopSugar Must Have Box, which delivers a curated selection of delightful full-sized products hand-selected by the editors. The box costs $39.95 a month and the value its contents usually doubles that value, if not more. The box from November 2013 included a bar of soap from The Soap  & Paper Factory, a large scented candle, Strawberry & Blackcurrant Cream Preserves from Maison de Monaco, Barefruit Crunchy Sea Salt Caramel Apple Chips. a wine tote from Land’s End, a Folk Art wrap from Michael Stars, and nail polish remover pads.
  • Desk workers would appreciate the Brookstone Beverage Warmer, which ensures that their beverage will always be kept to the right temperature. I especially like the high and low option settings.
  • Finally, if you are buying for children, consider buying them gifts that might get them interested in programming or engineering. CodeCrafter is a lovely novel by Erica Sandbothe about a young woman who saves her kingdom through code. I reviewed the book in July here. Parents (or loving uncles and aunts) might also like to introduce their daughters or nieces to the joys of mechanical engineering with the toy GoldieBlox, which builds spatial skills and teaches the basic engineering principles using narrative and mechanical parts.

Ryan

Stocking stuffers: mini surge protector, Moby Dick board book, Type:Rider, portable USB device charger, desktop cable organizer, Gummi Bears.

I wrote recently that the Google Chromecast just works like magic. If someone on your list watches lots of web video, this could be an exciting present that’s easy on your wallet.

As this is a higher-education blog, I assume most ProfHacker readers are and know lots of readers. A Kindle could be a welcome gift for those readers, even in a world of iPads and Samsung Notes. For instance, I recently wrote about why I’ve traded in my tablet for a single-purpose Kindle while commuting. If you’re trying to decide between models, I can attest to the portability and clarity of the new Kindle Paperwhite.

You’ll also need some books to go on that Kindle. For pleasure reading this year, I greatly enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a story of far-future terraforming and interplanetary conspiracy. I also highly recommend Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a tale of Google, text mining, secret libraries, surreptitious scanning, and secretive cults of bibliophiles. Matthew Kirschenbaum called Mr. Penumbra the first novel of the digital humanities, and I’ll likely end up teaching it in a few undergraduate classes this year.

We’re planning a “very maker Christmas” for our kids this year. If you’d like to get kids involved in making, consider Snap Circuits for younger kids or an Arduino Kit for older kids. Either will help kids start building electronics, rather than just using them, and hopefully lead to more critical engagement with the tech in their lives down the road.

For the music lover you love, consider a premium subscription for a service like Spotify or Rdio. I spent several years asking for subscriptions for Christmas rather than stuff, but I had a hard time convincing friends and family that I actually preferred an intangible subscription over a gadget. Last year I finally got a subscription to Spotify, and it’s changed my musical world. I love being able to listen to virtually any album at any time.

For the music lover you really, really love, Sonos speakers are a sure hit (though they’re pricey—hence the love). The sound quality is phenomenal and you can easily stream from iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and a host of other music services from the Sonos smartphone, tablet, or desktop app. If you have more than one Sonos speaker, you can sync your playback wirelessly between rooms. I used to do this with Apple’s Airplay, but the seamlessness of the Sonos experience far trumps my Airplay experiments.

Erin

For the (female) runner in your life, Oiselle’s Flyte long-sleeve top is a great piece that both wicks well and looks good. It comes in three colors: pink, peach, and graphite and is perfect for those in-between days where it is too cold for short-sleeves and too warm for a thermal top. It also layers well.

Also for runners, walkers, and cyclists, the Vizi Vest from Saucony not only comes in super-bright colors, but it also has LED light built in for increased visibility in low light conditions whether you are working out or walking the dog. The men’s version comes in orange while the women’s version is offered in either coral or pink. Saucony also offers a jacket with the same LED technology. The women’s version comes in either orange or pink while the men’s version comes in orange only. I have the women’s jacket, and I really like the LED technology for early morning or evening outings. The lights are powered by a USB-charged battery unit that weighs about the same as a flash drive and powers the light for about two hours. Both the vest and jacket are wind and water resistant.

Also helpful for increasing visibility, whether you bike, run or walk, are Knuckle Lights. Knuckle Lights are lightweight, silicon flashlights that provide up to 45 lumens of illumination and are designed to be worn rather than held. They are weather-resistant and have three settings: low, high, and flashing.

For the book-lover, you might consider a cell-phone case that looks like a classic novel, whether Alice in Wonderland, A Clockwork Orange, or The Great Gatsby. Available for the iPhone 5, the iPhone 4/4S (Animal Farm, The Outsiders, Moby Dick).

Or, if you would prefer to gift actual books, here are some of favorites from the last year: Donna Tartt’s, The Goldfinch, Booker Prize recipient The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Amazon’s Book of the Month for October 2013, Dave Egger’s The Circle. Though I haven’t had a chance to crack it open yet, S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst is the first book on  my shelves to have both a creator and an author. Finally, if you haven’t yet encountered the awesomeness that is Allie Brosh, you owe it to yourself to check out her book: Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened.

For the coffee or tea lover, you might pick up a Contigo insulated mug. The desk mug is 14 oz and stainless steel, and their travel mugs come in a variety of sizes and colors. The travel mugs are especially handy if, like me, you are prone to wearing your coffee as well as drinking it. They are vacuum-sealed and actually spill-proof.

Brian

There are three types of things that I like to recommend every year for the ProfHacker Gift Guide: music, games, and books. Here we go!

Music

There have been a number of great releases this year. I think my favorite is still Disclosure’s Settle, which is an amazing electro/dance record that crosses all sorts of genres and is fascinating from the vocal lines and lyrics to the bass squiggles in the background. A close second might be Rhye’s Woman, which is a gorgeous neo-soul album. And if you’d rather remember the 1980s than the 1950s, you’d do a whole lot worse than CHVRCHES update on synth pop in The Bones Of What You Believe. Other essential albums include Washed Out’s Paracosm (chillwave grows up into something incredibly lush); The Field’s Cupid’s Head (minimal house music); and my perennial favorite Los Campesinos, whose No Blues demonstrates that after five albums there’s still a lot more gorgeous and despairing indie pop to be mined.

Of course, music only sounds as good as the speakers or headphones that you’re using to hear it. If you’re buying a gift for someone who flies frequently or takes public transit every day, I can’t recommend the Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones enough. As I wrote in my review a couple of weeks ago, these headphones are the best way to get portable peace and quiet that I’ve found. Of course, since they aren’t at all cheap, they aren’t a gift to be given lightly.

Games

While I love board games of all sizes, I know that something that takes an hour and a half to play isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps that’s why the games that I’m recommending this year all take 10 minutes or less to play. In Escape: The Curse of the Temple you are working with all the other players to explore an ancient temple and place the magical crystals that will unlock the temple’s door so you can get out before the whole thing collapses. How you do this is by frantically rolling dice to discover rooms, place the crystals, and—inevitably—to help your teammates whose dice get locked. You only win if everyone gets out, so it’s important to work together. The game takes under 10 minutes to teach and—because you play to a timed soundtrack—exactly 10 minutes to play! That said, you’ll almost certainly play it for longer than 10 minutes because you’ll do it multiple times in any sitting. This is easily the most played game in my collection this year, and it works with kids who are 7 and up.

Going from Indiana Jones-style adventures to the intrigues of court, the second game I suggest is Love Letter. In it, you’re trying to use the members of court to get your notes of affection to the princess. You try to expose those who have the letters of your competitors and the person who ends the day unrevealed and closest to the princess wins. What’s really interesting about this game is that there’s only 16 cards in it, and you’ll have a hand of exactly one card when it’s not your turn. There’s a surprising amount of choices to be made with that single card. You’ll finish a round in probably 3 minutes, and an entire game really can be over in 10 minutes. Again, you’ll be playing this one multiple times.

Finally, if you want the craziest 10 minutes you can find on earth or in space, I’ll suggest Space Alert. You’ll be working again with all the other players to man your “Sitting Duck”-class spaceship as you attempt to survive while your computers chart an unknown sector of space. While a soundtrack plays and you reveal the different threats your ship faces—INTERSTELLAR OCTOPUS!—each member of the crew plots where he or she will move and what they’ll do in that part of the ship. You’ll want to fire guns, but is there any power in the reactor? “Brian, you’re on that, right?” No, it turns out that I fired up the reactor after you fired the gun. Space Alert is quite possibly the funniest game that I own and leads to stories that we tell over and over again about particular adventures. It’s my favorite game at the moment. A caveat, however: while the game only takes 10 minutes to play, it’s pretty complex and will take you a couple of hours to run through the tutorials that teach you to play the game. But once you’ve got those under your belt, you’ll knock it out in the 10 minutes.

Books

I’ve not read nearly as many books this year as I did in 2012, when my New Year’s resolution was to read one new book a month. I’ve got a new reading goal for 2014, however: I’m finally (finally!) going to tackle and finish David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. If you’ve never gotten around to it before, feel free to join me.

If you want something new and beautiful to read, however, I’d suggest taking a look at one of the offerings from London publisher Visual Editions. Their best known book is probably Jonathan Safran Froer’s subtractive novel, Tree of Codes, but all five of their volumes are arresting. I’m particularly fond of Adam Thirwell’s Kapow!, which takes place as an unnamed narrator in London tries to read about and follow the Arab Spring in real time. The book has unusual typography and fold-out pages. I’m also anxious to get my hands on the new Visual Editions newest, Where You Are: A Collection of Maps That Will Leave You Feeling Completely Lost.

Another great choice for the visually-oriented geek in your life is Tim Leong’s Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe, which features all the bar graphs, pie charts, and matrices that you could ever want to understand everything about your favorite superheroes.

Natalie

Fitness/Technology:

  • Earlier this year I reviewed the Fitbit Flex which is a great fitness tracker for someone interested in improving their everyday activity or starting a fitness program with family or friends (the Fitbit software has a lot of social features). As my review this week explains, I’ve since switched to the Basis B1 tracker, which is more expensive, but provides you with a lot more health data. It’s appropriate for someone interested in quantified self technology as well as fitness.

For the Kitchen:

  • If you’ve ever precariously piled plates on top of a block of tofu to squeeze out its water before cooking, then you’ll appreciate the TofuXpress — a simple, effective, easy to clean gadget that I use regularly. (Note: it presses only one standard sized block of tofu at a time, but it does work pretty quickly, so I just press each one about 10-15 minutes if I’m cooking a large batch.)
  • For my birthday this year I asked for and received the Cusinart Griddler as a gift — an electric countertop combination grill, griddle, or panini press. You can use it closed (contact grill or panini style) or open the two sides out to create one large cooking surface. Each half has a removable non-stick cooking plate that is smooth griddle on one side and grill ridges on the other, so you can mix or match as needed. It heats up quickly and cooks evenly. The removable plates are easy to clean by hand though they are also dishwasher safe. For my small household, it’s perfect.

Novels I loved this year:

  • Max Barry, Lexicon: brilliantly, sneakily, combines neuro-linguistic programming, Big Data, poetry, conspiracy theory, and what makes us human into a novel that you will gulp down compulsively–and then wonder just what caused you to do so.
  • Austin Grossman, You: This novel was historically and emotionally very evocative for me, tracing thru the early history of personal computing and turn based games. It’s also about narrative and meaning –why it is that immersing ourselves in stories (i.e. novels or games) is one of the ways we figure out the pattern of our own personal story.
  • Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette: a humorous novel set in the Microsoft environs, with a deeper emotional core than you might expect — about creativity and the challenge of paying attention
  • Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: For years, I’ve been recommending Fowler’s first novel, Sarah Canary — a feminist alt-historical romp that is both enjoyable and really smart. And now I’m going to be widely recommending her latest novel, too, though for different reasons, as its tone, content, and style are very different. But again Fowler demonstrates a deft blending of real historical material with smart, evocative fiction.
  • Audrey Schulman, Three Weeks in December:  a really interesting novel with complicated, interesting characters in complex natural and human environments. Not until the novel’s end do we learn how the two different historical strands connect — and by that point it matters much less than you might think.

Jason

You know what happens when you’re the latecomer to the group post? Other people beat you to the punch. So, here are my +1s to recommendations found above: the Fitbit Flex, Snap Circuits, and Contigo travel mugs are all great gifts, and Lexicon and The Goldfinch and Hyperbole and a Half are wonderful (though–obviously–very different) reads.

As with Ryan, Christmas at our house has gotten more and more makery over the years. And the first rule of making things is probably “learn about fixing things you have.” Sugru is a magical, self-sealing rubber that can be used in a wide variety of repair and design scenarios. For makers of all ages who are interested in circuits and computers but maybe not yet ready to solder, the Makey Makey is an excellent starting point, as it lets you turn anything that conducts any electricity at all into an interface for a computer. littleBits offers an easy way to experiment with circuits and sensors,  with modules that connect together via magnets.  Finally, for the maker who has been very, *very* good this year, or who is independently wealthy, there’s the brand-new version of programmable LEGO: Mindstorms EV3. (Kids who enjoy both steampunk and LEGO will love the latest version of the Master Builder Academy, Invention Designer, which is expressly steampunk in design.)

Curious what to get the indie rock fan in your life? Brian probably has people sorted for music, but why not get them hooked on vinyl with a turntable? Fans of The Hold Steady–and, honestly, who isn’t?–might appreciate some of the items on the band’s PledgeMusic campaign to raise money for the founder of their fan club. Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a haircut from guitar legend Tad Kubler.

As far as academic gadgets go, here are two that I’ve been using recently (reviews to come later this week): the Doxie Flip cordless flatbed scanner and the Livescribe 3 smartpen. Both have helped me move toward a less cluttered life in a sane way. One thing I’ve learned in my new job is that there really are people out there who like styluses with their tablets. For such persons, the Pencil is a nice solution.

Finally, books! Let’s go with comic books this year: Must-have books this year include the two volumes of Hawkeye (Vol 1: My Life as a Weapon and Vol 2: Little Hits), which I think are ok for all ages, but since I am pretty permissive about reading, your mileage may vary. The issue (in Volume 2) told from the perspective of a dog, manages both to be captivating and not just a stupid gimmick. For older readers (i.e., my 10yo doesn’t get to read this one), there’s Saga, which also has two volumes out this year: Volume 1 and Volume 2. For readers who want less fisticuffs and more sophisticated unpacking of familial baggage, there’s Alison Bechdel’s glorious Are You My Mother?  Gene Luen Yang also returns this year with Boxers and Saints, an examination of the Boxer Rebellion.

Lincoln Mullen

A high quality upgrade to an item that someone uses everyday can make a nice gift. Along those lines, here are a few suggestions:

  • A travel mug is a popular ProfHacker choice, but this Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug is a particularly nice choice. It’s so leak-proof that you can toss it into a bag without worries.
  • If your recipient does any traveling or working outside of an office or home, then this Accell Travel Surge Protector is great to protecting and charging anything that uses a USB or standard electrical outlet. It’s also much smaller and lighter than most similar gadgets.
  • For all of the makers, a Leatherman New Wave Multi-Tool is a nice, well made tool with pliers and wire strippers, and a screwdriver that can take many different bits, along with all the standard tools.
  • If you really love someone, then the Timbuk2 Command Messenger is a great bag. I’ve gone through a succession of cheap bags that fell apart on airplanes or trains, and finally replaced them with the Command Messenger, which is very well made. On top of that it is sensible designed: it’s the first bag I’ve used that satisfies my need for organization. And the laptop section feels like a normal part of the bag for everyday use, but it unzips to go through airport security.

For fun, try the Raspberry Pi Model B. The Pi is a $35 computer for hobbyists, and it is especially great for letting kids explore. The board is a little bigger than a credit card. You can plug it into a TV or monitor, and it runs off an SD card. You can go through the Raspberry Pi website, but they can be hard to find. So you might be better off buying the Raspberry Pi through Amazon, and (if you’re not sure what to get) you can get a basic, intermediate, or ultimate starter kit, which contains things you’ll need like a power supply and cables.

Amy Cavender

Perhaps because I’m just finishing my first semester back at work after a year-long, tech-heavy sabbatical, most of my gift suggestions are items your favorite academic could put to good use at the office and/or might enjoy tinkering with.

Office items

  • Good pens. Seriously. Though many of us now do much (if not most) of our writing at a keyboard, there are times when pen and ink are still desirable. I’m fond of TUL gel pens, myself.
  • A good desk lamp. Good lighting can make all the difference in the world, especially for eyes that spend hours upon hours reading and staring at screens. OttLite makes some very nice desk lamps, including the model I’m currently using in my home office space.

Tech items for work and for fun

  • The Linux Diversity Pack. We’ve mentioned Linux on a number of occasions in this space. Though versions of the OS are always free to download, the sheer number of available distributions means finding the one that best suits one’s needs can be a time-consuming task. The Linux Diversity Pack saves considerable time for would-be Linux explorers with Live DVDs of several of the most popular distros, along with substantial documentation for new users. The kit is available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions.
  • Flash storage. There’s no such thing as too much storage space on a computer, is there? USB drives come in a variety of physical sizes and storage capacities, and at this time of year they’re often on sale.
  • RAM. Just as there’s no such thing as too much storage space on a computer, there’s no such thing as too much memory, either. The heavy computer user in your life might well appreciate a memory upgrade.
  • A solid state drive. One of these might make a good (admittedly high end) gift for the computer user in your life who’s looking to improve system speed (especially startup times). Solid state drives are much faster than traditional hard drives, though they tend to be smaller in capacity. (Those considering a hard drive upgrade might want to peruse this article on the differences between traditional drives and SSDs before making a decision.)
  • A Chromebook. Compared to other computers, Chromebooks are inexpensive — but they’re still pricey compared to most gift ideas. Still, if you’re considering giving someone something as high-end as a computer, a Chromebook is worth a look, especially if the person you’re considering it for is looking for a lightweight travel machine. Current popular models are available from HP, Acer, and Samsung.  Which one to explore will depend on what the geek in your life is interested in. If said geek is interested in running Linux via Crouton or ChrUbuntu, a model with an Intel processor is a better bet. Just remember that Chromebooks lack optical drives, so the Linux Diversity Pack won’t work on these.

Anastasia Salter

This year I’m fairly obsessed with new gaming systems, although they do often come at a hefty price and there’s an overwhelming number of choices. For the fitness-obsessed, the ultimate new living room option is the Xbox One. It’s hard to get (although it is sometimes in stock on Amazon, link supports Able Gamers) and it has received mixed reviews, thanks in part to the lack of backwards compatibility and a less-than-overwhelming set of launch titles. However, the new Kinect is a vast improvement on the previous model, and the bundled with subscription Xbox Fitness includes a number of fairly intense workout videos that use the Kinect for checking success. I’ve also abandoned my Roku box in favor of the Xbox One’s support for Netflix and Amazon streaming.

In handhelds, I pretty much don’t go anywhere without my Nintendo 3DS. If you are a fan of gaming on the iPhone or Android, a dedicated platform might not seem worth it. But the dual-screen 3DS is still home to some of the greatest portable games, especially now that Pokemon X and Y and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between have hit. Casual gamers might find Animal Crossing: New Leaf as addictive as I do: it’s like Farmville but with light social features (you get to see the houses of people you “pass” while your Nintendo is broadcasting) and adorable animal residents with lots of demands. For kids, the Nintendo 2DS is also a nice new option, as it is both cheaper and a bit more durable without the hinged display.

What would you recommend to others for gifts this holiday season?

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