Halloween and Samhain have come and gone, meaning that it is time for Scientific Computing's annual holiday gift guide.  This year's selection of eclectic items is diverse enough that you should be able to find a suitable gift for any giftee, no matter what their interest or your target price range.  While you are at it, you might even pick up a gift or two for yourself, if only to celebrate your cleverness in taking advantage of this guide!

John Joyce is a laboratory informatics specialist based in Richmond, VA.

Just to avoid creating any unnecessary anxiety for any superstitious readers out there (do we have any of those?), we will follow tradition and start the guide off with some musical offerings. Keep in mind that the purpose of these selections is to help your giftee develop a broader and more eclectic taste in music. While I believe that everyone can find something to enjoy in these records, recall that the goal is to develop eclectic tastes. This means that your giftee will like the music produced by some groups better than that produced by others. More importantly, it means that they may love some of the songs by these artists and yet be turned off by others from the same artist. That's a good thing! If we all loved the same things and hated the same things, we'd be living in a very boring world, as everyone would be the same.

While I will go ahead and list some of the musical genres that these groups work in, making sense of them all can be worse than reading a wine label. In fact, some of the artists here strongly resist having any genre label applied to them, as they find it limiting. As this might suggest, the musical sound within a group can be quite diverse, so I recommend you just ignore the genre label and listen to the music of these artists, whether through a music service, YouTube, or their websites, then decide which ones your giftees are most likely to enjoy.

Headbanger Symphony – Courtesy of Nuclear Blast America

First up is Wolf Hoffman, most widely known for his group ACCEPT and the musical genres Heavy / Power / True Metal. As you'll find with a number of these artists, their tastes and interests are quite diverse.  While Wolf is maintaining a very active role in ACCEPT, he also has a strong interest in classical music. Yes, that Ludwig v. Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stuff!  I'm sure that some of you out there are having trouble reconciling the two, but it can be done.  He has been meticulously working on this merging of Metal and Classical for a number of years as a personal project. This project has finally come to fruition with the release of Headbanger's Symphony through Nuclear Blast America [Headbanger's Symphony; CD, Item number:105135, $11.99; RED VINYL Import, Item number:105113, $19.99; CLEAR VINYL Import, Item number:105112, $19.99; Nuclear Blast America].  I will allow that the first time you listen to these recordings, no matter which 'side' you are coming from, you might feel them a little disorienting and strange.  However, if you give them a chance, I believe that a number of songs will start to grow on you. It isn't a contest in terms of which 'interpretation' is best, they are just different and should be appreciated for that difference.

Epica - The Holographic Principle - Courtesy of Nuclear Blast America

The next selection is from Epica, known for their expertise in symphonic metal, with their 7th studio album, The Holographic Principle [The Holographic Principle, CD, Item number:105356; $11.99; 2-CD Digipak, Item number:105354, $14.99; Nuclear Blast America], the sequel to their 6th studio album, The Quantum Enigma.  However, if you attempt to search for this album via its genre, you will also find it listed as Classical Metal and Gothic Metal.  In terms of being eclectic, you will find that Epica tends to explore more philosophical ground than most bands.  In addition, you will find that listeners tend to select them for alternate reasons.  For example, I personally prefer Simone Simons' soaring vocals, but I'm sure that others select it for guitarist Mark Jansen’s guttural growls, and there are always their opulent orchestrations to pull you in.  While I tend to dislike the  'growls' that accompany a lot of metal music, I will admit that they provide a good counterpoint.  Listening to them, it is easy to understand why some people believe that Epica is an acronym for:  Excellence. Power. Intelligence. Creativity. Ambition.  For those who follow the reputations of musical producers, this album was produced by Joost van den Broek.

Monica Richards has been involved in music since her mid-teens and was one of the first women involved in Punk with her bands Hate From Ignorance and Madhouse.  Looking to take her music in a different direction, the name Madhouse was sold to Prince for a Jazz project, and she, along with several of her band-mates, went on to form the post-Punk band Strange Boutique, which consisted of Monica Richards (vocals), Fred "Freak" Smith (guitar), Steve Willett (bass), Danny Ingram (drums 1987-1991), and Rand Blackwell (drums 1991-1994) . It is frequently described with the following unattributed quote, which seems to appear everywhere:

"Strange Boutique rose out of the ashes of the Washington harDCore punk scene with a unique sense of song-writing, which crossed barriers and broke new ground in post-punk/alternative music. As the best kept secret of the 80's and early 90's, Strange Boutique created their very own eclectic brand of powerful, guitar-driven ethereal rock. This [Easter Island ep] is their first full-length album,  released in 1991, and greeted with the early "doom and gloom" reviews though years after Goth was in its heyday, it has been viewed more as shoegaze, heavenly rock music."

It was in 1993 that Monica Richards and William Coulter, of bands Christian Death and Mephisto Walz, joined forces to create Faith and the Muse, with the goal of creating their own musical sound, without being restricted by any boundaries formed by existing musical styles.  To better tie in with the band's name, William Coulter also changed his name to William Faith.  They drew on their musical backgrounds of genres as diverse as Dark Alternative Rock, Electronica, World Music, Neo-Classical, Jazz, Avant Garde, and Folk to create their 'sound', while pulling inspiration from Celtic Mythology, literature and history.  As with Strange Boutique, Faith and the Muse has frequently been referred to as having a “constantly evolving sound: indefinable but unmistakable.” 

Their latest release is Where the Land Meets the Sea: The Best Loved Songs of Faith and the Muse [Where the Land Meets the Sea: The Best Loved Songs of Faith and the Muse, CD (2), $16.99/€15.00, Danse Macabre Records, ©2016].  Unlike many 'best of' albums, these songs were selected by the artists themselves as their favorites.  The accompanying booklet includes comments from both artists explaining why these particular songs are special to them.  Intriguingly, the two included disks are labeled The Land and The Sea.  They are labeled such for a definite reason.  Reflecting the albums title, The Land includes what might be classified as their harder-edged, dark rock songs, while The Sea consists predominantly of their Classical, acoustic and ambient pieces.  You could drop several of these songs into a Celtic station, with no one noticing the difference.

Note that if you order any of these recordings from Monica's website, you will receive a significant discount from their list price.  While I really shouldn't have to say this, I've noticed that ever since musical file sharing began, a number of people have justified it by saying that the cost of CDs is a rip-off and the artist receives almost no money for their recordings.  For all but the most popular groups, this is probably true.  The fabrication cost of a CD is a very minor part of the cost and I can think of one record company, that shall go unnamed, who used their music CDs to install root-kits on a users computer.  If they'll do that, I wouldn't be surprised at all about what else they might do.  However, here is a chance to put your money where your mouth is.  In this case at least, because of the difficulty in finding music labels willing to contract with them, Monica and her associates formed their own record labels.  Bedazzled Records, in the case of Strange Boutique, and The Mercyground, in the case of Faith and the Muse.  So in this instance, the majority of money is going directly to the artist, so please keep your gifts legal, particularly as her prices even undercut the mighty Amazon.

When I started putting this year's gift guide together, my only interest in this artist was Faith and The Muse, as I'd stumbled across them on  However, after exploring her website, I discovered that Monica's talents are much more diverse than just being a singer and song writer.  These gifts include being an author, a poet, an artist, and a jewelery designer and fabricator.  I suspect there are other talents as well, but we only had time to cover so much background.

Richards' first book, a compilation of art, poetry, essays and re-writings of Welsh-Celtic tales was called The Book of Annwyn.  She was kind enough to send along a copy of her second independent project, called Naiades [Naiades; Hardcover Art Book with CD, $19.99; Music download only, $8.99; Monica Richards].  Editor Ward De Prins, of Belgium based Peek-A-Boo Music Magazine, rated this recording as the best recording of 2012.  If you still insist on labels, this recording has been classified as Ethereal, Heavenly Voices, Folk, Ethnic, Tribal and Gothic, so take your pick.  Those who still remember any of their Greek mythology from high school, might recall that the Naiades, a type of female spirit, presided over bodies of freshwater, particularly fountains, springs, streams, brooks and wells.  They are what ties these songs together.  This is a rather unique item and serves as a segue to the rest of our gift guide.  Naiades is a collaborative project that Monica has put together. While the book's text is a collection of her poems and the CD is basically these poems set to music, each page is illustrated by a special guest artist.  While I am unfamiliar with most of them, I suspect that the names will be quite familiar to those fans of the comics, sorry, I meant graphic novels!  Among these are Chrissie Zullo, Cathy Ashworth, Nat Jones, Bill Sienkiewicz, Menton3, Miran Kim, and many others.  The presence of these artists might make this a highly appreciated gift for comic fans due to the artwork of these artists alone.  Others might find the musical guests who participated in this project of more interest.  A random selection of these includes: Steve Niles – Bass & Guitars; Paul Mercer – Violin & Violas; Chad Blinman – Drums; and Marzia Rangel – Cellos.  Please check the website for a full list of both music and graphic artists.

Naiades - Courtesy of Monica Richards

As a final offering, coinciding with the current popularity of adult coloring books, Monica presents The Goddess – Adult Coloring Book  [The Goddess – Adult Coloring Book, ISBN: 978-0-69-249772-2, $16.99, Monica Richards, ZED Presents… Publishing, [©2015].  As stated, this is not designed to be a coloring book for children.  It comes with 48 pages of perfect-bound, 8.4 x 11 inch bright white filled paper featuring 23 detailed drawings of various goddesses from mythology.  This paper has been carefully engineered to readily take gel pens, watercolor markers, as well as colored pencils without the bleeding that would occur in your garden variety coloring book.  Gel pens in particular work well with it and the texture of the paper results in a gliding sensation, giving an almost sensual aesthesis.  The only caveat to be aware of with that, is that it does take the gel ink a while to dry, so you may want to break the pattern down into smaller segments to work with, to reduce the risk of smearing the colors.

Time and Relative Dimension in Sleep – Courtesy of ThinkGeek

The always popular ThinkGeek has provided us with several unique items for those of you who may need to provide gifts for those still inclined to play with toys, basically, just about all of us!  Do note, I have been informed that items on the ThinkGeek website go on and off sale automatically, so please check the current price before placing your order.  For those items currently on sale, I've included their normal retail price, with slashes through it, followed by the current sale price, as no one at ThinkGeek was able to tell me whether the sale prices would be honored through the holidays or not.

The first item, now that everyone is thoroughly destressed, is to ensure that everyone is thoroughly rested.  To accomplish that, ThinkGeek has used advanced Time Lord science to activate their Time and Relative Dimension in Sleep system, consisting of a soothing blue, overprinted with floating TARDISes, gears, and Circular Gallifreyan symbols.  [Time and Relative Dimension in Sleep, Choose Twin, Full, Queen, or King set, All Sizes are $34.99, ThinkGeek].

This constitutes a Microfiber Sheet Set, replicated in 100% polyester.  Each set includes a flat sheet, a fitted sheet and pillowcase(s).  The fabric tends to be on the shear side, so it is recommended that you machine wash, using cold water and dry them on the delicate setting.

Given that by the time your giftee receives this marvelous gift, we'll be well into the start of winter, at least in the northern hemisphere, it would also be considerate to gift them with something offering more thermal protection as well.  Recognizing this need, ThinkGeek has also thoughtfully provided their Exclusive Doctor Who Comforter [Exclusive Doctor Who Comforter, Choose Twin, Full, Queen, or King, All Sizes are $79.99, ThinkGeek].  As with the sheets, the Doctor Who Microfiber Comforter Set is fabricated with 100% polyester.  This set includes both comforter and sham(s) (1 for twin, 2 for all other sizes).  The comforter is decorated with the Twelfth Doctor's title sequence's time spiral, while the pillow shams feature the Doctor Who logo in the center.  For variety, or to shield your fandom from wandering Daleks, the reverse of the comforter and shams is plain TARDIS blue.  As with the sheets, these should be machine washed in cold water, gentle cycle, then tumble dried on low.

After a long day of defeating villainous slime and saving planets, you might wish to unwind with a drink, before sliding into that reassuring and restful bed.  Now, any beer or wine connoisseur will tell you that each type of beer or wine requires a specially shaped glass to bring out it's full flavor.  It should be no surprise that this is true with Ales as well.  To accommodate this need, ThinkGeek has thoughtfully developed their exclusive Romulan Ale Glasses [Romulan Ale Glasses, Set of Four 12 oz. Glasses, $19.99, $8,99, ThinkGeek].  These glasses are sturdy with thick walls, unlike the thin fandom targeted pieces that you sometimes find.  While rated as being dishwasher safe, they are NOT rated as being microwave safe!  Please make this clear to your giftee, as attempting to use them in a microwave can induce sever malfunction in Terran appliances, possibly disrupting any potential embedded Romulan surveillance devices as well.

According to GeekLabs, at ThinkGeek World Domination HQ®, people function best when they are in close proximity of things they adore (e.g. boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, cat…).  To facilitate this, ThinkGeek has developed their exclusive 8-Bit Dynamic Life Pin Set  [8-Bit Dynamic Life Pin Set, $19.99, $9.99, ThinkGeek].  Included in this set are two matched Dynamic life detectors.  When powered up and activated, a single heart will flash on the display when the two units are separated.  As the distance between the two badges decreases, more hearts will be displayed, with all 6 hearts illuminated when the bearers are within hugging distance.  This could be an excellent gift, either to a loving couple, or even to split between yourself and your loving significant other, just to give a visual reassurance of your love.

These units are powered by a USB rechargeable Lithium polymer battery, which can energize the unit for approximately 3.5 hours with all 6 hearts lit, and includes a power switch to conserve battery life.  As with many technologies, there are limitations with these devices.  Specifically, they use an infrared emitter and detector.  This means that you must be in a line of site with your partner and that it cannot operate properly through walls, unless, of course, that wall is transparent to infrared light.  However, I have noticed that the detectors in these units appear to be very sensitive, so in many instances, even if the badges are not facing each other, the infrared light reflected off the wall, or someone's back, from one badge can still activate the other.  The stated range extends past 20'.  If a second badge is not detected within 15 minutes, these units will automatically go into sleep mode to conserve power.  This gift comes with two badges and 1 micro-USB charging cable.  To prevent perforating your uniform with pins, each badge comes with a magnetic plate, allowing you to clip it into place without risking running afoul of a uniform inspection.

For those mathematician or engineering giftees on your list who are always trying to remember what the 20th or 30th digit of ð is, ThinkGeek has thoughtfully provided a totally irrational gift with their exclusive ThinkGeek Pi Power Necktie! This 100% silk necktie, in power red of course, has an extended value of ð subtlety woven into its red jacquard fabric.  This tie is 3 1/2" wide (at widest) x 59" long, and incorporates a keeper loop on the back.  The tie is packaged in a magnetically latched box, suitable for gifting.  Yes, I understand that he probably dislikes wearing neckties and that they are traditionally reserved for Father's Day, but sometimes you just have to make sacrifices in the cause of your profession!  [ThinkGeek Pi Power Necktie, $19.99, ThinkGeek]  As ThinkGeek says, most people will likely not even notice the pattern, but take comfort in the fact that they don't deserve your biting sartorial wit anyway. Note: Installation instructions are not included! 

ThinkGeek Pi Power Necktie - Courtesy of ThinkGeek

For those giftees with more of a fascination toward jewelry, ThinkGeek  provides their exclusive Celestial Fireworks Bracelet [Celestial Fireworks Bracelet, $59.99, $35.99, ThinkGeek].  To the uninitiated, it may initially appear to simply be a fashionable bangle with galactic images printed onto it, which in reality are images of the Westerlund 2 star cluster captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.  However, the knowledgeable will also know that it contains a USB rechargeable battery and, when switched on, 15 embedded LEDs allow the bracelet to glow and various stars to twinkle.  The inner surface of the bracelet is manufactured from stainless steel, to protect those with nickel allergies, while its magnetic hinge allows for wrists up to 7”.  The charging port and power switch are also mounted in this stainless steel surface.  This bangle comes with a proprietary USB cable that features a breakaway magnetic connector for charging.  It will run for abut 8 hours on a charge and can be recharged in about an hour.  A perfect item to call attention to your giftee during a delightful evening on the town.

If your giftee generally prefers something...shinier, I strongly recommend the Dr Who inspired Crack in Space and Time Ring from Jewel Envy [Dr Who inspired Crack in Space and Time Ring, From $225 CAD (~$172 USD), Jewel Envy].  This is a beautiful ring, designed and fabricated by one of their resident goldsmiths, Amanda Henderson, that comes in a number of variations. Each ring is made to order from a special blend of sterling silver that is recycled and tarnish resistant. There are three versions available through the attached ordering link: plain sterling silver, sterling silver with the 'crack' oxidized to black, and sterling silver with the 'crack' plated with 14K yellow gold. All styles are available in mirror polish or matte silver. Each ring is 6.5mm wide.  These rings are suitable for men and women and, as I mentioned, are quite beautiful.  So much so, that a number of couples have actually used them for wedding rings, but a marriage is not required as a prerequisite for purchase.

Dr. Who Inspired Crack in Space and Time Ring - Courtesy of Jewel Envy

The rings are available in sizes 6-11 (full and half sizes). The fixed retail price for the base ring is $225 Canadian dollars, with the US dollar price recalculated daily, based on the current conversion rate. For other customized versions of this ring, such as 10K Yellow Gold or Nickel-free 14K White Gold please contact Jewel Envy directly through their website.  While Amanda has agreed to expedite processing, the anticipated turnaround is 1 to 2 weeks, so if you like this item, please get your order in soon. If you are up to date on your Whovian knowledge, you might remember this from Matt Smith's Doctor and the season The Girl Who Waited.

If The Doctor is not your cup of tea, perhaps you have a giftee who is more into the Star Trek fandom?  If that is the case, then Geek Dot Jewelry has you covered.  Amongst their other fandom offerings is this stunning miniature pendant of the Galileo shuttle craft, with the roll off your tongue title of Star Trek Jewelry Multi Gem Pendant Star Trek Galileo Pendant.  Lovingly detailed in itself, it also opens up to reveal its six jeweled passengers.

It is available in Sterling Silver, 14k Yellow Gold and 14k White Gold, with your choice of synthetic or natural stones.  Depending on your choices of material, the price of this pendant ranges from $395 to $1,050.00 [Star Trek Jewelry Multi Gem Pendant Star Trek Galileo Pendant, From $395, Geek Dot Jewelry Division of Paul Michael Design].  Have fun filling out the crew, with yellow for the Captain, blue for Science and Medical, and, of course, a couple of red shirts just in case!  As you might have deduced from its customizability, this item is also fabricated on demand, so get your orders in as soon as possible.

The Galileo pendant has been on display in the The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, located in Pittsburgh, PA as part of their Out of This World! Jewelry in the Space Age exhibition.  To quote the exhibition's description:

Out of This World! Jewelry in the Space Age brings together scientific fact and pop culture in a showcase of wearable and decorative arts related to outer space, space travel, the space age, and the powerful influence these topics have had on human civilization.

Of course, there are others that like shiney things as well, but curiously aren't necessarily interested in jewelry, at least if it's not automated in some way.  For those Geeks, SparkFun Electronics has thoughtfully come through with potential gifts to sooth their souls as well.  Just so no one gets overly agitated or hyperventilates, we will ease into these items gradually, so everyone please remember to take deep breaths and try to remain calm.

Their fist item is a ¼ pound spool of 0.020” diameter Special Blend Solder [Solder – 1/4lb Spool (0.020” Special Blend, SKU: TOL-10242, $29.95, SparkFun Electronics].  What's so special about Special Blend Solder?  This is a custom blend [96.35% Sn (Tin), 3.0% Ag (Silver), 0.5% Cu (Copper), 0.15% Sb (Antimony).] made for and used by SparkFun Electronics in their own production.  Note that this solder is lead free, the tradeoff being that you have to use a higher temperature soldering iron.  But to at least partially compensate, it contains a water-soluble flux core, making for easier board cleanup.

Naturally, to effectively use solder, you need to have a soldering iron.  Finding a good one at a reasonable price can sometimes be a challenge.  If you use a soldering iron with too little power, you might need to hold the iron against the component so long for the solder to melt, if it melts at all, that the component is destroyed by the excess heat.  On the other hand, if you use one with too much power, such as a soldering gun, you loose a lot of control.  The majority of those irons you might find at a craft store, or a RadioShack if you can still find one, are likely to be at the low end of the quality and power scale. 

To become a pro at soldering, it is helpful to not only have a good quality soldering iron, but have one that you can adjust the temperature of, as different types of solder have very different melting points.  The Hakko FX888D Soldering Station exhibits an excellent balance of features.  It has an adjustable temperature set-point, so you never have to worry about the tip being too hot or too cold, as the station monitors the actual temperature at the tip and adjusts the required current accordingly.  While not this particular station, the Hakko products are what SparkFun uses on its own manufacturing and repair lines [Hakko FX888D Soldering Station, TOL-11704, $99.95, SparkFun Electronics].  I have heard nothing but glowing reviews of this product, other than a few people who thought that its control interface was more difficult to use than necessary.  However, if your giftee can handle setting a multifunction watch using a two button interface, I'm confident that they will be able to figure it out, a small price to pay for a reliable soldering station that will serve them for years.  If for some reason they do have a problem with it, SparkFun Electronics' Technical Support staff are there to provide enthusiastic assistance!

Hakko FX888D Soldering Station – Courtesy of SparkFun Electronics

The LIDAR-Lite v3, manufactured by Garmin, is another popular SparkFun product [LIDAR-Lite v3, SEN-14032, $149.99, SparkFun Electronics].  Weighing only 22 g and with a resolution of 1 cm, the LIDAR-Lite v3 is perfect for applications where size and weight are at a premium, such as in drone or unmanned vehicle applications.  It has a measurement range of 40 meters and only draws 130 ma at 5 VDC (okay, 4.75-5 VDC; 6 V Max if you really want to get picky) when set to continuous measurement, which corresponds to a 500Hz sampling rate.  Communication/Control of the LIDAR-Lite can be handled via either the Inter-Integrated Circuit (I2C) interface or a Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) interface.  Due to the downloadable software libraries, implementing this with an Arduino system is extremely easy, as shown in the video mentioned below.

The LIDAR-Lite v3 is highly flexible, allowing the user to optimize settings to balance accuracy, operating range and measurement time to their needs.  To evaluate this unit as a possible gift, the Operation and Technical Manual, as well as a software support library for the Arduino can be downloaded from the LIDAR-LITE v3 web page. In addition to listing the full operation protocols and technical specifications, the manual also discusses how this unit responds to Diffuse Reflective, Specular and Retro-reflective surfaces.  There is also a discussion of how liquids can affect the operation of the sensor.  Finally, a video demonstrating the use of this product is embedded in its descriptive web page.

Note that this unit is listed as a Class 1 LASER product meaning it is safe under all conditions of normal use.  However, it is still prudent to NOT stare into the beam.  Also keep in mind that if you remove the casing, the beam will no longer be shielded, potentially resulting in exposure to LASER intensities that can be damaging.  In addition to the LIDAR-Lite v3 unit, it is packaged with a cable and manual.

An excellent gift to introduce someone to that amorphous and shifting concept referred to as the Internet of Things is the SparkFun IoT Starter Kit with Blynk Board [SparkFun IoT Starter Kit with Blynk Board, KIT-13865, $69.95, SparkFun Electronics]. 

The Blynk platform is comprised of the following three components:

The Blynk App – Downloadable from iTunes and Google Play.  The application builder allows your giftee to create apps that include a variety of control and display 'widgets', featuring an assortment of buttons, sliders, graphical displays and RGB controllers for their smart phones.

Blynk Servers -  This component is responsible for handling communication between the giftee's smart phone and their IoT hardware.  They can either take advantage of the Blynk Cloud or you can run a local private Blynk server.  The server software is open-source and can even be run on a Raspberry Pi.

Blynk Libraries – This component consists of software libraries for a wide variety of Arduino, Raspberry Pi, ESP8266 and SparkFun hardware platforms.  It is this set of libraries that enable communication with the Blynk server and processes all of the incoming and outgoing commands for the giftee's local application.

The SparkFun Blynk Board, ESP8266 (WRL-13794), is the heart of this kit and is specifically designed to interface with the Blynk servers and app, so it is easy to get the kit up and running. This starter kit is pre-programmed and includes all of the parts to complete the 14 IoT introductory projects included, without having to make even a single solder connection! 

Specific features integrated into the SparkFun Blynk Board include:

  • On-Board Si7021 Temp/Humidity sensor
  • On-Board Future Technology Devices International Ltd. (FTDI) FT231X USB to serial converter IC break out for re-programming the Blynk Board
  • On-board WS2812 RGB LED
  • ADC scaled to 0-3.3V
  • Expansion connectors for I2C and WS2812 output
  • LiPo battery charger
  • Arduino Integrated Development Environment (IDE) programmable

The Blynk app is compatible with iDevices running iOS 7.0+, and Android devices running any version above or equal to 4.0.  The Blynk manual provides a good overview of the functionality available in the Blynk App.  The Developer license is free, though there are 'energy' charges for some functions.  Startup, Business, and Enterprise licenses are also available on a fee basis, for those wanting to post their app in one of the App stores.

For those seriously getting into electronics, SparkFun features the Digilent Analog Discovery 2.  This is an excellent gift for anyone seriously involved in circuit design and troubleshooting.  Those working on Electrical Engineering and other degrees may find this a very useful gift as well.  In essence, the Analog Discovery module is designed to be used with your computer to function as a USB oscilloscope and multifunction generator, as well as a logic and network analyzer, et al.  It was developed by Digilent in conjunction with Analog Devices and supported by Xilinx University Program.  The heart of the Analog Discovery 2 is a Xilinx Spartan-6 Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), not to be confused with a Fuse Programmable Gate Array, circuit #XC6SLX16-1L.The Analog Discovery 2 Reference Manual gives a very good overview of its specifications and capabilities.  While the digital functionality is designed primarily for LVCMOS (1.8V/3.3V), it is 5V tolerant, for use with older CMOS components.  All inputs are protected up to ±50V.

The Analog Discovery 2 can be configured to perform the function of a variety of different existing instruments, not bad for a unit that can fit in a pocket (3 1/8” x 3 1/8” x 7/8”)!  Among these instruments are:

  • 2 Chanel Oscilloscope (with the Analog Discovery BNC Adapter Board)
  • Two-channel arbitrary function generator (with the Analog Discovery BNC Adapter Board)
  • 16-channel digital logic analyzer (LVCMOS (1.8V/3.3V, input is 5V tolerant, output is 3.3V, 12mA, 100MS/s)
  • 16-channel pattern generator (3.3V CMOS, 100MS/s)
  • 16-channel virtual digital I/O including buttons, switches, and LEDs
  • Two programmable power supplies
  • Single channel voltmeter (AC, DC, ±25V)
  • Network analyzer
  • Spectrum Analyzer
  • Digital Bus Analyzers (SPI, I²C, UART, Parallel)

The Analog Discovery 2 is controlled via the free WaveForms 2015 software, which is Mac, Linux and Windows compatible.  It can be powered via its USB cable or an external supply option (5V, 2.5A – not included), depending on the supply needs of the application  [Digilent Analog Discovery 2, TOL-13929, $279.95, SparkFun Electronics].  Several potentially useful accessories, such as a BNC Adapter Board for the Analog Discovery, BNC Oscilloscope x1/x10 Probes (Pair), and Mini Grabber Test Clips (6-pack) for use with Analog Discovery Flywires. are available from a variety of other vendors.  While the BNC Adapter board is not required for oscilloscope function, using the Digilent Analog Discovery 2 without this, as well as appropriate BNC oscilloscope probes, can introduce signal distortion and channel cross-talk.

If you haven't been sufficiently impressed with SparkFun's other offerings, the pièce de résistance is a virtual kit for designing what are sometimes called soft circuits or fabric circuits.  While SparkFun has several formal kits under development, other than some LillyPad systems, there really isn't much around in terms of creating complex soft circuits, particularly for using electroluminescent, or EL, materials.  Unlike fiber optics, where a light beam traverses an optical fiber between an illumination source and wherever it is terminated.  EL materials actually glow on their own, when excited by a high frequency, relatively high voltage signal.  For simple systems, this is no problem at all, you simply connect a piece of EL wire or ribbon to an EL Inverter, and you have a glowing display. 

SparkFun EL Sequencer - Courtesy of SparkFun

However, if you want a more complex display, such as lights fading in or out, coordinated sequencing, or where you need to integrate multiple types of subsystems and sensors, such as for Cosplay or eTextile displays, you are out of luck.  So, until their official Cosplay kits are ready, I've worked with the staff at SparkFun Electronics to put together the following virtual kit.  The intent is to specify a kit that includes all of the necessary components for the giftee to start building something right away, as opposed to having to put the gift up on a shelf until they can order the needed components.  The following virtual kit comes in at under $125, but keep in mind that this list is flexible and can be easily customized depending on the equipment that the giftee already has, so you may be able to spend significantly less and still have an exciting gift.  Additionally, it makes it easy to split up the 'kit' if you want to spread the cost of the kit over several gifters.  I've included several EL displays in the kit, so that they could experiment with different types of displays, but you can easily substitute all EL wire or tape, as well as selecting a different combination of EL colors.  If you don't think your giftee would be interested in the chasing light functionality, you have the option of dropping the chasing wire and adapter from the kit as well.

This kit has also been designed to run off of an AC wall adapter, which can be great for development, but for inclusion in a Cosplay costume or similar application, they will need to substitute the appropriate batteries for the wall adapter.  The core of this kit is the SparkFun EL Sequencer board, which is designed both to switch the high voltage driver circuits and to control the overall system with a built-in Arduino controller.  The easiest way to determine what types of substitutions to make or to determine which parts you don't need, is to review the EL Sequencer/Escudo Dos Hookup Guide on the SparkFun website.  Browsing through the other tutorials on this site is a good way to develop project ideas as well.  The following is a list of the parts for this virtual kit, but you'll need to refer to the manuals on the SparkFun site for information on how to connect things.  If you need a little help deciding, have no fear, unlike some companies, SparFun's Customer Service and Technical Support staff are top notch and friendly.  If you can obtain a power harness from an old PC (check a PC repair shop) or order an adapter cable, such as Product # :20413 from CTG, you can even avoid having to perform surgery on the power supply connector.

Components for Full EL Cosplay/Electroluminescent Virtual Kit:

  • SparkFun EL Sequencer, COM-12781, 34.95
  • Power Supply
    • Power Supply – 12V/5V (2A), TOL-11296, $9.95
    • Power Cable -7A IEC C13, TOL-11299, $1.50
  • Barrel Jack to 2-pin JST, TOL-08734, $2.95
  • DC Barrel Jack Adapter – Male, PRT-10287, $2.95
  • DC Barrel Jack Adapter – Female, PRT-10288, $2.95
  • EL Inverter – 12 V, COM-10469, $14.95
  • EL Wire- Red 3m, COM-10191, $9.95
  • EL Tape – Blue 1m, COM-10793, $8.95
  • Chasing EL Wire
    • EL Wire – Purple 3m (chasing), COM-12928, $9.95
    • EL Chasing Adapter Cable, COM-12934, $1.50
  • Break Away Male Headers – Right Angle, PRT-00553, $1.95
    • These are only required to attach the SparkFun FTDI Basic Breakout – 5V for reprogramming the on-board Arduino compatible processor.
  • SparkFun USB Mini-B Cable – 6 Foot, CAB-11301, $3.95
    • This is a standard USB Mini-B Cable.  Check, you or your giftee probably have a number of them around.
  • SparkFun FTDI Basic Breakout – 5V, DEV-09716, $14.95
    • This card is only required for reprogramming the Arduino compatible processor.
  • Jumper Wire – JST Black Red, PRT-08670, $0.95
  • Jumper Wire – JST Black Blue, PRT-08671, $0.95

And, as a reminder that we shouldn't get too smug in our roles as scientists and engineers, Ellusionist has provided a delightful novelty to remind your giftee to always question everything, as things are not always what they seem.  Specializing in all things magical, Ellusionist has provided a unique tool for those with giftees of magical aspirations.  In case you missed that, let me emphasize that this is a TOOL, not a TOY, and should only be gifted to one who knows how to respect and properly use their tools.  In this case, Ellusionist has upped the ante over their previous offering with the new Pyro Mini 2!  The strict rules of magic prevent me from describing this device in detail, but those who dare explore Ellusionist's website might well stumble over more information about it [Pyro Mini Fireshooter, $147.00, Ellusionist].  Let's just say that the Pyro Mini 2 allows those gifted with the necessary arcane knowledge to magically send bursts of fire sailing across the room.

Pyro Mini 2 - Courtesy of Ellusionist

This kit includes everything required to accomplish this feat, with but a single omission, common sense!  Now, I have assured my colleagues at Ellusionist that unlike most people, my readers are saturated with common sense.  So, please do not make a liar out of me!  This is not a child's toy, but, as I said, a tool.  So only gift this to an adult who you know will respect it properly!  One such as that, while amazing in themselves, can use the arcane knowledge contained, to amaze and astound their friends. And one final reminder from Ellusionist: Please Note: You must be 18 or over to purchase and/or use the Pyro Mini Device.

We even have something for those still in need of a few stocking stuffers.  If you have friends with a tendency to misplace their USB thumb drives, Case Logic provides several solutions.  One option is their 2 Capacity USB Flash Drive Shuttle, this case is capable of holding two USB thumb drives and comes with a clip for securing to other objects, such as your keys or backpack.  This case is available in three colors, Blue, Black, and Purple [2 Capacity USB Flash Drive Shuttle, Models: JDS-2-BLUE, JDS-2-BLACK or JDS-2-PURPLE, $3.99, Case Logic].The other option is their USB Flash Drive Case.  This case can also hold two USB thumb drives and, instead of a clip, comes with a metal loop that you can use to attach an extendable clip to, such as comes with many jackets and computer cases.  It is available in two colors, Magenta and Black [2 Capacity USB Flash Drive Shuttle, Models: USB-201-MAGENTA and USB-201-BLACK, $3.99, Case Logic].

Cell Ring-Black - Courtesy of Mobile Edge

Another convenient stocking stuffer is the Cell Ring from Mobile Edge.  Available in both white and black versions, you can always make your giftee try to guess what it's for before giving it to them.  The Cell Ring consists of a plastic rectangle with a removable and reusable adhesive pad on one side and a ring that can rotate in two dimensions on the other side.  The intent of this device is to give you a more secure way to hold on to your smart phone or a small tablet, but it has other uses as well.  You start by attaching it to the back of your cell phone or tablet.  The ring can rotate 360° and fold 180°.

By properly rotating and folding the ring, you can position it to a convenient angle to slide your finger through to give you a more secure grip on your device.  Alternately, you can attach a retractable clip that many jackets and backpacks come with, as mentioned above, so that you don't forget your device or allow it to inadvertently fall out of a pocket.  In addition, by properly positioning the ring, it can function as a stand for your device, making it much more convenient to watch videos or input data, assuming you are using a wireless keyboard [Cell Ring, Black (Model MEASG1), White (Model MEASG2), $9.99, Mobile Edge].


As we approach the end of this year's gift guide, we'd be remiss if we didn't include some potential books as possible selections for your giftee, all of them eclectic, of course!

The first of these is a quirky computer book, by the specialists of quirky educational books, No Starch Press, yes the ones with the Manga Guides to math and science topics.  This one takes a somewhat different approach from the Manga Guides in its quest to help the reader learn about the various types of search algorithms and which ones are most appropriate for a given situation.  Here the reader follows Frank Runtime, disgraced ex-detective turned private eye and search expert.  When the chief of police suspects a traitor on the force, he brings Frank in to crack the case.  The reader is allowed to tag along with Frank's investigation, as detailed in The CS Detective: An Algorithmic Tale of Crime, Conspiracy, and Computation [The CS Detective: An Algorithmic Tale of Crime, Conspiracy, and Computation, ISBN: 978-1-59327-749-9, $17.95, No Starch Press, ©2016, Print & eBook: $17.95, eBook: $14.95 (PDF, Mobi, and ePub)]  So it's Computer Science Detective rather than the ever popular Crime Scene Detective genre, but there is still a case to solve.  While this book doesn't cover any programming, it does give a good overview of search techniques and how to apply them.  Along the way to solving the case, among others you'll learn about:

  • Linear searches
  • Binary searches
  • Breadth-First searches
  • Depth-First searches
  • Stacks and Queues for searches
  • Binary Search Trees
  • Best-First Search
  • Heuristics in Search
  • Heaps

Our next featured book is Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, a collaboration between psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, whose March 2014 Huffington Post article “18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently”, based on Scott's research, went viral, amassing five million views and more than half a million Facebook likes in a matter of days. Rejecting the 'four-stage model' of creativity developed in 1926, most psychologists consider it an oversimplification.  The creative process details vary from one type of artist to another. Psychological studies continued to reject a step-by-step account of the creative process, suggesting that it is likely to be considerably less controlled

This book discusses how creative people tend to have contradictory attributes.  Among others, they describe a study which found that the average creative writer was in the top 15 percent of the general population on all measures of psychopathology covered by the test.  Yet at the same time, they also found that creative writers scored extremely high on all the measures of psychological health!

Also discussed are the various neural networks identified in the brain and how they interact.  In several respects, it comes down to the fact that creative people have messy minds and messy processes. It is being able to manage these contradictions that allow people to be creative. The common threads observed appear to be 'an openness to one’s inner life, a preference for complexity and ambiguity, an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray, the ability to extract order from chaos, independence, unconventionality, and a willingness to take risks.'  This books explores the contradictory nature of the following attributes and habits of highly creative people:

  • Imaginative Play
  • Passion
  • Daydreaming
  • Solitude
  • Intuition
  • Openness to Experience
  • Mindfulness
  • Sensitivity
  • Turning Adversity into Advantage
  • Thinking Differently

While this book goes to great length to explore the nature of creativity, its underlying goal is to help guide us to enrich the creative process in our own lives.  I look forward to exploring this book in more detail and strongly recommend it [Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, ISBN: 978-0-339-17410-0, $26.95, Perigee/Penguin Random House, ©2015].  In many ways, it is nicely summed up by the Walt Whitman quote that kicks off the Introduction: “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”. 

Our final book selection is from the ever reliable Mary Roach.  Despite all of her awards and best sellers, Roach consistently downplays being referred to as a science writer, pointing out that she doesn't have any education in science journalism or a formal background in science.  Be that as it may, what she does have is an insatiable sense of curiosity, a wry sense of humor, and the knack for asking the right questions, whether potentially embarrassing or not.  I think that our learning along with her is one of the big appeals of her work.  Another outstanding quality is that she is not only willing, but enthusiastic, to become part of the research to ensure that she fully understands the topic.

While she says that her books are always about the human body (or how things affect it), she has a delightful penchant for avoiding the popular topics of most science books, and instead shines a flashlight on those odd things in the corners, that most people never even knew to ask about.  Though she passes this off casually as:

I would say it has more to do with my own sort of quirky set of interests and sense of curiosity rather than feeling some obligation to address things that aren't well enough addressed.

Her latest release is Grunt, and no, it is not a squeal to Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.  Rather, Grunt, or more completely, GRUNT: The Curious Science of Humans at War examines the research that goes on to keep our troops safe and alert, as well as how to 'repair' them when things do go bad.  As is typical, if you are looking for descriptions of the latest in assault weapons or strike aircraft, you won't find it here.  Rather, while still addressing topics that are potentially lethal, you will learn about things such as:

  • How to make and test a shark repellant
  • How do combat medics cope
  • The maggot paradox
  • The war on heat
  • Automotive safety for those that drive on bombs
  • Diarrhea as a threat to national security

In case you hadn't noticed yet, her selection of topics is a bit eclectic, or, as one person put it, she has “what some might call unusual interests”.  Alternately, as Mary herself describes selecting a book topic, 'Well, it's got to have a little science, it's got to have a little history, a little humor—and something gross.' I know of no one who can make learning new things, particularly about something gross, as enjoyable and humorous as she can.  I highly recommend ALL of her books!  [GRUNT: The Curious Science of Humans at War, ISBN: 978-0-393-24544-8, $26.95, W. W. Norton & Company, ©2016]  In fact, before gifting this book, you might want to take a quick read through it yourself, just to make sure that it is suitable for your giftee of course!

With the eyes of our many readers out there, if you come across something that you feel might be eclectic and quirky enough for our gift guide, I strongly encourage you to let us know.  If you can supply a URL for the item, so much the better. 

So, until next year, from all of us at Scientific Computing, happy holidays!