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A Cornucopia of Esoteric and Eclectic Holiday Gifts

Fri, 12/10/2010 - 10:21am
John R. Joyce, Ph.D.

A Cornucopia of Esoteric and Eclectic Holiday Gifts

Well, there is a chill in the air outside and the leaves are falling, so I'm sure everyone's thoughts are starting to turn to the holidays ahead. As always, Scientific Computing is here to help with another holiday gift guide, overflowing with suggestions for those on your list for whom you always have trouble buying (or for yourself, after all, who else is more deserving?).

 

Cover art from Al Stewart's studio album Sparks of Ancient Light
Cover art from Al Stewart's studio album Sparks of Ancient Light, an excellent example of Stewart's signature historical folk-rock. Courtesy of Chapman & Co. Management

As is tradition, we'll start off with some musical suggestions. This year, we will again ignore the traditional music industry classifications and take an eclectic look at Al Stewart, an artist who created his own genre of historical folk-rock. Many of Al Stewart's earlier works have been reissued or collected and released as compilations and are now available again for listeners who have never discovered him. We're featuring his two most recent works, the studio album Sparks of Ancient Light (Appleseed Recordings, APR CD 1112, ASIN: B001CW7LPC, UPC: 611587111227, Suggested List Price: $17.98) and his intimate concert album Uncorked: Al Stewart Live With Dave Nachmanoff (Wallaby Trails Recordings, WAL-1001, UPC: 884501202541, Suggested List Price: $15.99).

Sparks of Ancient Light is a reflection back to his historically-influenced work from the 70s, but with lighter arrangements that highlight the intelligence of his lyrics and the cleanness of his delivery. After all, how could you not find songs about Elvis Presley and Stalin, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, or Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the deposed Shah of Iran, fascinating. My personal favorite is Hanno the Navigatorabout the Phoenician mariner and explorer Hanno II of Carthage, who explored the west African coast past the Pillars of Hercules and established a number of colonies along the African coast around 500 BC, a feat not exceeded until Portuguese explorers set sail in the early fifteenth century. What better gift to get someone with a bent toward history?

Many concert albums, while perhaps good at suggesting the energy of the concert, frequently fail to provide a good venue for actually listening to the music, due to all of the extraneous sounds captured in the recording. With songs recorded at three different venues, Uncorked: Al Stewart Live With Dave Nachmanoff is an exception to this rule. Instead, it provides a much more intimate experience, and a different look at Al Stewart's songs, since it consists of a concert consisting of just Al and his guitar, backed by the talented Dave Nachmanoff, playing a selection of his classic songs, such as “Running Man,” “Palace of Versailles” and others. It even includes snippets of Al's concert banter relating to the background regarding the creation of some of his songs.

 

Daisy chained array of X-mini II Capsule Speakers from XM-I Technology Ptd

Daisy chained array of X-mini II Capsule Speakers from XM-I Technology Ptd Ltd. Courtesy of ThinkGeek

To enhance the enjoyment of these recordings, I'd suggest including an X-mini II Capsule Speakerfrom XM-I Technology Ptd (ThinkGeek, X-mini II Capsule Speaker, $24.99). Closed, this unit has a height of only 4.4 cm and a diameter of 6 cm. However, plug it into the 3.5 mm stereo jack on your music device, twist the top counter-clockwise to pop open the Bass Xpansion System (BXS), and it can generate surprisingly loud good-quality sound. It will run for four to eight hours on its internal Li-ion battery, depending on the volume, and comes with a USB charging cable and a protection pouch to store it all. Multiple units can even be daisy-chained together to enhance the sound.

Continuing the audio theme, our next item is the MOSHI Voice Control Alarm Clock, which comes in both desk and travel versions (ThinkGeek and MOSHI Lifestyle, Moshi Voice Control Travel Alarm Clock, $24.99/Moshi Voice Control Desk Clock, $39.99). One of the most frustrating features in dealing with digital clocks is remembering how to set them, as they all seem to work differently. MOSHI's Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology eliminates this problem, as you simply tell it what to do and it does it. With the desk clock, simply say “Hello MOSHI” and it will ask you for the command, which among others can be to set the time or alarm or for it to tell you the time or temperature. The travel alarm requires you to press a button to put it into command mode. This is understandable, as it might become slightly... embarrassing, to have your luggage start talking to the baggage loaders at the airport. Its technology received the VisionFree Award from the Stevie Wonder Foundation at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show. While Moshi's IVR technology has been trained for every U.S. dialect and accent, every once in a while it encounters an enunciation that trips it up, but this can usually be resolved by a change in tone. While I'm sure it's nothing personal, it does tend to find British accents (and I suspect those of Aussies and Kiwis) somewhat confusing.

For those on your gift list too active to have to wait on an alarm to get them going, perhaps you should consider a Gerber Artifact Mini Tool. (ThinkGeek, Gerber Artifact Mini Tool, $9.99). This minimalist design strips eight tools down to their essentials and combines them into a handy pocket-sized package. Think how handy you would have found it to be able to locate a small and medium flat-head screw driver, a cross-point screw driver, a bottle opener, pry bar and locking knife in your pocket. It is constructed of cast stainless steel with a titanium nitride coating for durability. Best of all, if you happen to forget and leave it in your pocket while going through airport security, just remove the #11 hobby blade from it and step on through (which also means you can always have a literally razor sharp blade on hand).

Do you have any electronic hobbyists on your list or someone who is simply into repairing any broken electronic gadget they come across? Consider a container of microcarbon fullerene conductive “Wire Glue” as a stocking stuffer (ThinkGeek, “Wire Glue” Conductive Glue, $3.99). Good for making low-voltage AC or DC connections, it is a great item for quick electrical repairs or for solder-free electronic projects. By bundling it with one of the O'Reilly Media publications we'll get to shortly, you can create an even more impressive gift.

And, speaking of hobbyists, how about any “computer hobbyists” on your list (As if they could turn their computer addiction off when they came home from work!)? We all know that anyone who actually uses computers has more USB devices than they have USB ports on their machines. Yes, you can go down the street to your local consumer electronics store and pick up a nice four-port hub there, but that will likely be full before they even get it home. Far better to gift them with a Century Corp. USB Super 16 Port Hub from ThinkGeek (ThinkGeek, USB Super 16 Port Hub, $159.99). Additionally, it contains its own internal power supply to provide power to these ports, as well as a switch to swap device connectivity between two different PCs without having to unplug a single cable.

 

Seagate's FreeAgent GoFlex ultra-portable drive
Seagate's FreeAgent GoFlex ultra-portable drive with optional FireWire 800 interface. Courtesy of Seagate Technology

Another ideal gift for any computer user is the GoFlex Storage System from Seagate. While we have looked at multiple portable hard drives in the past that provide the flexibility of multiple interface ports, I haven't seen any that surpass the flexibility of Seagate's FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-portable Drive. Taking a different approach from most vendors, the base drive unit, which can be purchased with a capacity ranging from 320 GB ($89.99) to 1.5 TB ($229.99), comes with a standard SATA interface and the choice of a USB 2.0 or 3.0 interface. The flexibility comes with all of the Upgrade Cable kits that are available. Options include USB 2.0 (STAE100, $19.99), USB 3.0 (Upgrade Cable - STAE104 - $29.99, Upgrade Cable Kit - STAE101 - $79.99), FireWire 800 ($39.99), powered eSATA (STAE103, $19.99) and even a USB one to perform automated backups (STAE109, $29.99). Beyond that are the other components that the bare drive can be plugged into. One is their FreeAgent GoFlex Net Media Sharing Device (STAK100, $99.99). Connected by Ethernet to your router, this device allows you to access your GoFlex drive from anywhere on your network, or over the Internet for that matter (with the proper setup and logon) via the included Pogoplug service. You can even plug several additional USB drives into the unit and access those as well. Another component, which can be run standalone, is their FreeAgent GoFlex TV HD Media Player(STAJ100, $129.99). This device allows you to stream any audio or video files on your GoFlex drive, or other attached USB device, to your TV. Connected to your router via Ethernet, it even allows you to watch content streamed from popular websites like Netflix and YouTube.

Of course, everyone has at least one or two people on their gift list who already have every gadget known to man, as well as a few that probably haven't even been invented yet! Still, like everyone else, they need a way to transport those gadgets around, preferably while still projecting a professional air. For them, I suggest checking out one of the backpacks or cases available from Mobile Edge. These are among the best-made cases I've seen and, while I've yet to be able to test their durability, I can attest to their inclusion of a number of carefully-thought-out features that their competitors would do well to adopt. For example, anyone who has carried around a fully loaded computer backpack, particularly during the summer, knows that when you finally take the pack off, your back is going to be soaked. Many of the Mobile Edge backpacks incorporate an open cellular padding that not only distributes the weight of your computer and gadgets across your back, but does so in a way that allows air to circulate, so you don't have that all-too-familiar build up of sweat under the backpack. Personally, I find the venting effect even more welcome than the padding! Realizing that some people would rather risk having their arm fall off from using a standard laptop case than wear a traditional backpack, we've decided to feature both a 'traditional' backpack design, along with one that these individuals might find more appealing.

 

MobileEdge's EVO (right) and Komen Paris (left) laptop backpacks
MobileEdge's EVO (right) and Komen Paris (left) laptop backpacks, both with lifetime guarantees. Courtesy of MobileEdge

While listing it as traditional might be pushing things a bit, I think you will find many things to appeal in the EVO Laptop Backpack (Mobile Edge, SKUs (Multiple Products): MEEVO1 - Black with Silver Trim, MEEVO4 - Black with Yellow Trim, MEEVO3 - Black with Blue Trim, MEEVO7 - Black with Red Trim, $79.99). Constructed of 1200 Denier Ballistic Nylon, it can hold laptops up to 16" and Apple Macbooks up to 17", includes 16 accessory pockets, and features Mobile Edge's Cool-Mesh Padded Back Panel and Shoulder Straps. For the Ladies on your list, I'd suggest the Komen Paris Backpack(Mobile Edge, SKU: MEBPWX, $129.99). Constructed of microfiber with leather accents, it supports laptops with screens up to 16", includes Mobile Edge's Ventilated and Padded Rear Panel with Ergonomic Shoulder Straps, as well as a removable accessories/cosmetics pouch. Ten percent of the sales price of this backpack will be donated to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation for the elimination of breast cancer. If neither of these suggestions fit with your gifte's taste, just check out Mobile Edge's Web site. Their selection of cases is rather, uh... extensive.  Oh, and in case I didn't mention it, all of Mobile Edge's case are covered by their lifetime warranty!

 

Rovio browser controlled mobile Webcam
Rovio browser controlled mobile Webcam, includes built in speaker and microphone. Courtesy of ThinkGeek

Whether deep into computers or not, consider the WowWee Rovio Mobile Webcamfor those on your list who are into neat gadgets (ThinkGeek, Rovio Mobile Webcam, $199.99). This robotic webcam can be controlled via a variety of browsers, whether running on a PC, Mac, smart phone, PDA or PS3, and includes a built-in microphone and speaker to give you a remote presence. It is capable of automatic navigation and can return to its base station automatically to recharge its 6 V NMH battery pack, though this might require purchase of additional TrueTrack beacons if traversal of multiple rooms is required. By configuring your wireless router to forward-specified ports, Rovio can be accessed and controlled from anywhere on the Internet. Note that the Rovio only supports WEP encryption, not WAP, so you may need to reconfigure your wireless router to use it successfully.

 

VOT125 dual core computer with 2 Gbytes of memory and 250 Gbyte hard drive
VOT125 dual core computer with 2 Gbytes of memory and 250 Gbyte hard drive with built in Ethernet and 802.11b/g/n interfaces. Consumes only 10% of the power that a comparable standard size PC would. Courtesy of ViewSonic

Perhaps the ultimate gadget in this year’s gift guide is the ViewSonic PC Mini VOT125. Measuring a mere 1.5” x 5.1” x 4.5” or a volume of 0.6 L, this is a full computer system weighing only 1.43 pounds. Simply plug in your USB mouse and keyboard, connect it to a video display, and you are ready to go. It is available with a variety of Intel CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) Processors and is pre-loaded with Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium Edition, though it will readily handle Windows 7 Professional Edition. Standard features include 2 GB internal memory, 250 GB hard drive, four USB 2.0 ports, DVI/HDMI outputs, and Ethernet/ 802.11 b/g/n wireless LAN internet connections, as well as a 3-in-1 card reader (SD, MMC, MS). The VOT125 will even support two monitors in Extended Desktop Mode. If you connect both monitors before booting the unit, this configuration is automatic. Classified as a netop, this unit uses approximately 10 percent of the power that a comparable standard-size PC would. The primary 'downside' to be aware of is that, due to its small form factor, it does not include an integrated optical drive. Those who require one will need to obtain an optional USB external drive unit. This is probably a reflection of not only its size, but the fact that it includes a VESA mounting kit so that you can directly mount it on the back of your flat panel display.

The review unit I worked with was the top-of-the-line VOT125-04 with an Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 dual core processor chip running at 1.30GHz with 3M Cache and 800MHz FSB. It lists for $579.00. On pulling it out of its box, it’s easy to mistake this unit for an external hard drive, as its form factor is close to some of those that I've seen. However, it quickly disabuses you of that notion. I found it very responsive and easy to work with. In addition, it is one of the quietest units that I've ever worked with, as it is designed to be convectively cooled, eliminating the noise associated with a fan. If you are looking for something a little lower in price, consider the VOT125-02, based on the Intel Celeron SU2300 processor (ViewSonic, VOT125-02, $449). Running at 1.20 GHz with 1 M Cache and 800 MHz FSB, this unit is not as powerful as the VOT125-04. However, it still out-performs other netop units based on Atom processors.

 

Vinturi red wine aerator

Vinturi red wine aerator. Courtesy of ThinkGeek

Of cource, not all gadgets have to be electronic or computer related. Perhaps a good one to close this section out Exica's Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator(ThinkGeek, Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator, $39.99). Only 4 inches long and 2.5 inches in diameter, this clever device improves bouquet, enhances flavor and smooths a red wine's finish. The mixing of air and wine in this device is said to open up and mellow harsh young wines. However it does it, there are few things quite as relaxing and satisfying as sitting back with a glass of wine and a good book.

 

MAKE: Electronics, a hands-on introduction to electronic design and construction
MAKE: Electronics, a hands-on introduction to electronic design and construction. Courtesy of O'Reilly Media

Of course, what constitutes a good book depends on the tastes of the reader. For those who favor the combination of intellectual curiosity and the ability to build something with their own hands, the following items from O'Reilly and Associates should be right on the mark. The first of these, for those making their first leap into the world of electronics is Make: Electronics – Learning by Discovery by Charles Platt [O'Reilly Media, ISBN: 978-0-596-15374-8, $34.99, 334pp, ©2010]. In addition to being a life-long electronics hobbyist, Charles Platt is also a science fiction author, contributing editor to MAKE magazine, and a former senior writer for Wired. This book does an excellent job of introducing the reader to the basics of electronics and leading them through a series of ever more complex electronics projects. However, I think even those experienced in the trade would enjoy exploring this book, as the author has rounded it out by including sidebars exploring the history of various electronic devices, such as the ubiquitous 555 timer chip, and the people who made these developments possible.

For those looking for more challenging projects, or just wanting to vicariously absorb the excitement of someone else's development, I'd suggest a copy, if not a subscription, to MAKE magazine. The following volumes are an excellent introduction, for a variety of reasons:
• Make: Volume 20 [O'Reilly Media, ISBN: 978-0-596-80090-1, $14.99, 176pp, ©2009] includes an interesting interview with Adam Savage of Mythbusters and an examination of classic toys from the 60s, as well as diverse projects ranging from building a hydrogen-oxygen bottle rocket to building a Laser show 'Lunchboxen.’
• Make: Volume 22 [O'Reilly Media, ISBN: 978-0-596-80717-7, $14.99, 176pp, ©2009] is a special focus issue. While including a diverse collection of eclectic projects, its primary focus is to 'remote control everything!' with nine diverse automation projects. These range from elaborate projects such as building an Arduino-powered radio controlled lawn mower to how to care for your pets with an iPhone. Make provides a great playground for the curious. It's amazing how much information regarding physics, electronics, chemistry, engineering, fabrication, and even art one picks up reading these magazines without even being consciously aware of it!

That wraps things up for this years guide. I hope you found it of value in completing your gift list. We're always hunting for the new, unique and different. So, if you've stumbled across a great source for geek toys, please let us know. Happy Holidays!

John Joyce is a laboratory informatics specialist based in Richmond, VA. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.


Related Resources
Al Stewart — www.alstewart.com
Appleseed Recordings — www.appleseedmusic.com
Arduino — www.arduino.cc
Century www.jpcentury.com
Dave Nachmanoff — www.davenach.com
Gerber Legendary Gear — gerbergear.com
Make Magazine — MakeZine.com
Mobile Edge  www.MobileEdge.com
MOSHI Lifestyle — www.moshilifestyle.com
O'Reilly Media — www.oreilly.com
Seagate  www.seagate.com
ThinkGeek — www.ThinkGeek.com
ViewSonic — www.ViewSonic.com
Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator — www.vinturi.com
Wire Glue (Anders Div. Of Idolon Tech) — www.wireglue.us
Wowwee — www.wowwee.com
XM-I Technology Ptd — www.x-mini.com

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