Holiday Gifting Guide

Wed, 10/31/2007 - 8:00pm
John R. Joyce, Ph.D.

Holiday Gifting Guide

Ideas for your favorite techie and beyond

Download / Listen to an Audio Intro from John Joyce.
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Okay, time to shift perspective. As hard as it may be to take notice of events outside the research center, the winter holidays are nearly upon us. As such, it behooves you to be sure you have appropriate gifts for those close to you, else you may be left with no place to go besides the lab! Fortunately, I've arranged another selection of gifts sure to appeal to everyone on your list. Even better, you can order them all on-line, without having to even leave the safety of your office!


As has become traditional, I'll start this years’s list with the gift of music. First on the list is a group with which I've recently become familiar called Qntal (pronounced ‘kntal’). Currently composed of Syrah (Sigrid Hausen), Michael Popp, and Fil (Philipp Groth), Qntal was founded in 1991. Frequently identified with everything from

Cover art from QNTAL's latest studio album: QNTAL V: Silver Swan. A unique blending of Renaissance & medieval sounds with electronics and the bands classical roots. Courtesy of Dancing Ferret Discs and 

Medieval Rock and Gothic Rock to Industrial Music and Darkwave, Qntal is noted for defying convention and creating their own sound, which is constantly in a state of flux. Their most recent studio album, Qntal V: Silver Swan ($15.98, ASIN: B000H2M29S, Dancing Ferret Discs), is an excellent example of this. Some of their performances, such as a number of those included in Qntal IV: Ozymandias ($15.98, ASIN: B00096S3UE, Dancing Ferret Discs), have a very operatic quality to them. What originally began as a studio project, fusing Syrah’s lush vocals with a combination of medieval instruments, computer synthesized sounds, and historical lyrics has taken on a life of its own, continuing to come together in exciting ways, both contrasting and complementary, I highly recommend them both.

Syrah and Michael Popp also are members of the Renaissance music group Estampie. Taking their name from the 13th and 14th century medieval dance and musical form, this band, founded in 1985, primarily recreates authentic period medieval pieces with the instruments of the time, eschewing the use of electronics, though it does incorporate some aspects of new age music. While the lyrics are primarily Latin, it has been noted that the rich combination of sounds, particularly with Syrah’s vocals, has a similar feel to some of Loreena MeKennitt’s work. The 18 tracks of their 2007 release, Best of Estampie (1986-2006) ($15.98, ASIN: B000U1XITE, Noir Records), provides an excellent introduction into this ensemble’s work.

Estampie provides a good segue to another of my favorite groups, Blackmore's Night. They are represented this year by their DVD Paris Moon ($24.97, ASIN: B000VVE2TS, Steamhammer / SPV). Recorded live on 20 September 2006 at the Olympia in Paris during their first tour of France, this provides another chance to escape and explore Richie Blackmore's and Candice Night's interpretation of Renaisance themes in a musical style that is truly their own. Their last studio album, The Village Lanterne, made the top 20 album charts the world over, ranking number two for the year on the New Age charts. (The sound of Blackmore’s Night is so unique that record companies and stores frequently don’t know where to file them, which is probably why the are so underplayed on the airwaves.) Several of their past albums have been voted “Best Vocal Album Of The Year” by National Public Radio (NPR). In a rather unique presentation, this disc is encoded with the DVD presentalion on one side (with a running time of 128 minutes) and a CD performance of a number of the arrangements on the other. This item includes a DVD with a running time of 128 minutes and a CD containing nine tracks from the show, along with two bonus tracks. While most of these songs have appeared in their previous recordings, live shows, by their very nature, are different from show to show. Many of the arrangements are quite different from those in previous shows, so they are likely to appeal to even those who have all of their previous albums.

Also making a return appearance is Loreena McKennitt with Nights From the Alhambra ($26.98, ASIN: B000SO7OMA, Verve/Quinlan Road). This release, which debuted at number 22 on the New Age charts (They haven’t been able to pigeon-hole her either), features a DVD (139 minutes) and two CDs (94 minutes, combined) with the music from her live concert at the Palacio de Carlos V of the Alhambra Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Granada, Spain, recorded in September 2006. Much of this concert was broadcast by PBS as part of its “Great Performances” series. These recordings, supported by a carefully selected team of world class musicians, feature 18 of her most popular songs plucked from throughout her career, making it an excellent introduction for any of your friends unfamiliar with her music. Many of these pieces help demonstrate the long, sometimes subtle reach of the Celt’s influence throughout Europe and beyond. It is available in two packaging formats, but they have identical contents.

Wrapping up our musical selections for this year is the eponymously named Mediaeval Baebes 10th Anniversary DVD(£20.00). It contains 26 of their distinctive arrangement, two of them previously unreleased. As usual, they refuse to be categorized and the works range from their own compositions to traditional medieval and renaissance works. They’ve even included Edgar Allen Poe as one of their collaborators. You also will find them performing in modern English, Middle English, Mediaeval Latin, Mediaeval Welsh, Cornish, to name only a few. This DVD, sold only through their Web site, was designed as a gift from the Mediaeval Baebes to their fans. As such, it may be missing the elaborate staging that you might expect in a commercial concert, but the sound is all you would expect from this group, and it provides a more intimate experience than you would normally find at a mass concert. Performing primarily a cappella, with the aid of some occasional percussion or other minimalist background, this group continues to demonstrate what an amazing musical instrument the human voice can be.


Memory appeals to everyone, and this year we have a plethora of it, thanks to Edge Tech Corporation. Providing a transition from our previous section is the Edge Dock & Multi Flash Card

High speed 8 GByte Flash Survivor™ GT USB memory drive, water resistant to 200 M. Courtesy of Corsair 

Reader for iPod ($19.95). A compact and, of course, white unit that first off allows you to charge and sync an iPod, an obvious necessity given all of the music we’ve already looked at. In addition, it mounts a line-out connector to allow you to plug in external speakers. Of more interest to some, it also mounts a S-Video connector, allowing you to view iPod photos on your TV. To get back to our memory motif, it is also an adapter allowing you to access a variety of flash memory cards. Supported media include:
• Type I/II CompactFlash
• IBM Microdrive
• SD Memory Cards
• xD Picture Cards
• Multimedia (MMC) Cards
• Memory Stick Pro
• Memory Stick Duo
• Smartmedia

This unit supports the USB 2.0 interface specification, but is backward compatible with USB 1.1 as well. It can be used with both MS Windows and Mac computers. For those who always have to be state-of-the-art, this unit even supports the iPhone!

Edge Tech also has provided a variety of USB drives. The first of these is their diskGO Secure Biometric Flash Drive with Encryption. It provides USB 2.0 compatible secure storage incorporating 192-bit TDES encryption. What really makes this drive stand out is that it incorporates an embedded fingerprint scanner into the unit, along with the associated biometric fingerprint software required to make it all work. Instead of the typical cap to cover the USB connector, the unit’s design incorporates an integral case that slides down over the connector and protects the fingerprint scanner window. It is available in 1GB ($69.95), 2 GB ($79.95), and 4 GB ($119.95) versions. Oh, and it does come with a lifetime warranty!

Addressing another area of concern is their diskGo Smart with Migo software. While the Migo software does not allow you to install standard applilations — as oppossed to Portable Apps — on the drive, it does allow you to save customizations such as application settings, preferences, and wallpaper. The Migo software carefully prompts you through the steps to setup this synchronization, so you don't have to be a computer specialist to do it. This USB drive is available in 1 GB ($29.35), 2 GB ($41.12), 4 GB ($58.76), and 8 GB ($149.95) versions.

While I have not yet tried it, for those with a hunger for even more portable memory, Edge Tech has just released a 32GB DiskGO USB 2.0 Flash Drive. Retailing for $399.95, like many Edge Tech products, it comes with a lifetime warranty.

Finally, there is their Edge SD Card + USB Flash Drive memory card. This is a unique unit that is sure to appeal to mobile users who hate carrying around extra pieces of equipment. With the detachable panel clipped on, it is the same form factor as a standard SD memory card. Remove the panel and it becomes a USB 2.0 memory drive that can be plugged into any USB port. The molded case is stated to be 100-percent waterproof and dustproof. This unit is available in both a 1 GB ($29.95) and 2 GB ($44.95) versions.

For those on your list who are a little more demanding in terms of the wear and tear to which they subject their technology, Corsair has come out with their Survivor line of USB 2.0 flash drives. As shown, the drive is encased in a CNC-milled, anodized aircraft-grade aluminum cylinder. This, in conjunction with an EPDM waterproof seal, makes the unit waterproof to 200 m (yes, that’s meters, or 650 feet for you engineering types!). A molded shock dampening collar helps protect the unit from vibration and impact damage. The Flash Survivor GT, which provides data transfer rates about five times faster than other drives by employing performance matched IC-paired memory and controllers, can be obtained in an 8 GB version for $129.99. For those that don’t need this speed, a 4 GB Survivor is available for $59.99. All versions of the Survivor are preloaded with 256 bit AES encryption software and come with a 10-year warranty.They also support dynamic wear leveling to help prolong the life of USB Flash drive.


To many, the holidays are a time for toys but, as with many great things, what fits a given person’s definition is highly variable. Fortunately, we have ThinkGeek to stand by us, and they have provided something to match just about anyone’s definition of ‘toy.'

While the holidays may be the one time those of you with teenagers don’t have to struggle to get them out of bed in the morning, ThinkGeek provides an item guaranteed to get them going on all of

Stainless Steel, white ash, and brass collapsible chopsticks, for those that want to eat in style. Courtesy of ThinkGeek. 

those other days. Their Sonic Grenade ($12.95) is a bright yellow and black unit, molded from plastic and hard rubber, that generates a penetrating squeel 20 seconds after being triggered. It can be set to three different volume levels, with even the lowest being pretty annoying. The only way to permanently silence it, other than with a sledge hammer, is by reinserting the pin.

For those closet Gallifreyans on your gift list, ThinkGeek features replicas of the Dr. Who Sonic Screwdriver ($14.99). Interestingly, this was originally modeled after the prop in the TV show, though sized a little larger to make room for the batteries. The TV show then went back and remastered their prop from this replica. While the replica won't open doors or any of the wonders that The Doctor's can do, it does function as a very servicable writing instrument. Unlilke most, it can write in either visible or invisible ink. Its extending end houses a UV LED to make your secret messages visible again.

Designed for the ruthless cubicle warfare of the 21st Century, the USB Missle Launcher ($39.99) turns any computer with a USB port into a state of the art weapons system. Supporting a 180-degree firing radius, it is a significant step forward in keeping your cubicle safe from foreign incursion! About the only thing missing from this unit is a built in Web cam to allow you to aim around corners. However, this is an oversight that many DIYers have corrected by mounting a standard Web cam on the traversing arm. Do suggest that your recipients review their offices policies and procedures manual before initiating a potential arms race, as some employers are noted for a distinct lack of humor.

For anyone who grew up watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and similar TV shows, or simply likes all of the neat gadgets that James Bond gets to carry around, the Gadget Shoulder Holster ($49.99) is for them. It contains numerous pockets, allowing you to easily carry all of your critical gadgets without any unsightly bulges. In addition, it includes a detachable retractable key fob and contains hidden channels to discretely route the cable from your music device/cell phone to your headphones. It is easily adjustable and will fit up to at least a 44-inch chest.

While I have not tried it, for recipients who grew up with a preference for westerns, they also carry a Gadget Hip Holster ($59.99). Designed to ride low on the hip, just like a gun slingers, it even has a loop for an auxiliary leg belt, to keep it from flapping around when you walk.

For those on your list who always seem to be hunting the remote control for their TV, ThinkGeek provides the Ninja Remote ($8.99). It's very simple to 'program', simply point it at your TV and hold down the Mute button until the TV goes silent. After that, the lucky recipient will have full control of the TV. This miniature device is capable of controlling the TV’s volume, channel, mute, and power. Note: The user of this easily concealable remote is completely responsible for their actions. Any injuries from bar fights due to the user surreptitiously altering TV settings during bowl games are not the responsibility of Scientific Computing or ThinkGeek!

Considering the health hazards involved, I'd never encourage anyone to take up the habit of smoking. However, despite whatever the Department of Homeland Security might think, there are many other legitimate reasons why a citizen might have use for a source of fire. ThinkGeek addresses this need in style with their Turbo Bright LED Lighter ($15.99) from Solder-It. While it can be used as a simple lighter for starting fires (though its piezo electronic ignition and blue LED seem like overkill for that) it can also serve as a 2400 °F (1300 °C) torch. This makes it ideal for all of those unexpected soldering jobs you encounter while hiking through the wilderness. It will burn continuously for about 30 minutes before you must refill its butane reservoir.

Bearing the logo of our friends from This Week in Technology, the TWiT Personal Area Network Microfleece Pullover ($59.99) is a gift sure to keep away the winter chill while allowing the recipient to keep all of their treasured technology close at hand. Just one in a series of Gear Management Solutions from SCOTTEVEST/SeV, this pullover is designed with five pockets and includes features such as a water bottle holder and magnetic pocket closures. Most importantly, it comes with the patented personal area network (PAN), providing conduits for running wires, such as for headphones, through the lining of the jacket, so there is nothing to snag or lose. Check the SeV site for proper sizing information, as the one I tried seemed somewhat on the small side.

What I found to be one of the more unusual, yet most useful, gift ideas on the ThinkGeek Web site was their Collapsible Chopsticks($24.99) from Snow Peak. If stereotypes can be trusted at all, these should be the perfect gift for all of your programmer friends. They should also appeal to anyone who enjoys Chinese or similar ethnic foods, but hates using the bland bambo chopsticks most restaurants give out. These chopsticks are constructed from white ash recycled from broken baseball bats. The wooden tips are stored in stainless steel cylinders with brass caps. In use, the wooden tips screw into brass fittings seated in the ends of the cylinders. Once collapsed, the chopsticks can be stored in the included nylon carrying pouch.


Of course, there are always those who like to build things, as oppossed to just playing with them. For them, I'd suggest a copy of Tom Igoe’s book Making Things Talk(O’Reilly & Associates, ISBN: 0-596-51051-9, $29.99) in O’Reilly and Associate’s Make: Projects series. Whether the recipient is a diehard ‘techie’ or just a newbie with a lot of interest, this book will serve as a primer to get them up-to-speed on networking devices. Projects range

Kaden Harris' Eccentric Cubicle, filled with do-it-yourself projects to make your drab cube anything but ordinary. Courtesy O'Reilly & Associates. 

from setting up a ‘Networked Cat Cam’ to IR and XBee interfacing. Among other things, you will learn how to interface digital compasses and accelerometers, and read RFID tags. It will even show you how to build a battery powered GPS that reports its position wirelessly or use a Webcam to recognize 2-D bar codes. Overall, this book is an excellent introduction to both the electronics and the software required to interface and use a wide range of devices.

If your potential recipient is one of those who actually wants to get away from computers in their time off, you might want to consider gifting them with the book Eccentric Cubicle, by Kaden Harris (O’Reilly & Associates, ISBN: 0-596-51054-3, 391 pages, $29.99). Promoted as ‘featuring zany and interesting ways to pump some fun into your workspace,’ this book provides a multitude of workplace-oriented projects for the do-it-yourselfer. Providing a tutorial ranging from basic shop techniques to discussions of fabrication philosophies, its goal is to restore some fun to the all-to-frequently drab office environment. With guidance from the creator of the Eccentric Genius Web site, this book guides you through building everything from desktop guillotines to fog machines and USB-powered bubble blowers!

While that wraps things up for this years holiday gift guide, don't worry, I've already started looking for items to include next year. Rest assured that you can rely on Scientific Computing to watch your back and make sure the holidays don't slip by without your noticing. However, it's up to you to actually order them, so I suggest you get on the Internet and do it now, before you forget!

John Joyce is the LIMS manager for Virginia's State Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services. He may be contacted at

Web Resources
Blackmore’s Night
Dancing Ferret Discs (Qntal, Estampie)
Eccentric Genius
Edge Tech
IsoTank (Qntal, Estampie)
Make Magazine
Mediaeval Baebes 
Migo Software
Nettwerk Records (Mediaeval Baebes)
New Age Reporter
Noir Records (Qntal)
O’Reilly & Associates
Quinlan Road (Loreena McKennitt)
URBAN TOOL Design und Handels
Verve Records (Loreena McKennitt)
Snow Peak U.S.A.
Steamhammer/SPV (Blackmore’s Night) 


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