ProfHacker 2011 Holiday Gift Guide

Holiday Lights!It’s the end of the fall semester and the beginning of December…That means it’s time for ProfHacker’s annual—and EPIC—holiday gift guide!


EPIC enough for ALL CAPS. And more than a few exclamation points!!!

There’s sure to be something here for your loved ones, friends and neighbors, and just possibly yourself. We’ve got fun stuff, we’ve got work stuff. Gadgets, books, foodie favorites. And if you don’t see a gift idea here, take a look at our 2010 and even 2009 holiday gift guides.


In the realm of really big gifts, picking up the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch would be quite generous of you.  However, in the realm of the more reasonable, and if they have one of those Apple items (or are getting them), these accessories may prove helpful:

  • Jabra Cruiser2 Bluetooth Speakerphone($40) (for listening to iPod/iPhone/iPad in the car)
  • Cases:  Otterbox for the iPhone (~$25); Acase carry case for the iPad (~$25)
  • Apps: In addition to our lists of iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch apps, check out Waze (social meets GPS), Photosynth (easy panoramic photos), and Flipboard (the killer feed reader app for the iPad).
  • It’s not as cool looking as the latest Apple products but potentially much more important—pick up an external hard drive (buy at least 1 TB) and/or a SpiderOak subscription for your family and friends (bonus points if you help them set it up).
  • Looking for a good book for the historically minded reader?  Check out Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Civil War era novel, March, now in paperback. This well-written, engaging piece of historical fan-fiction tells the other half of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women, by focusing on the wartime experiences of Mr. March.


For readers. Those (young adult and above; parents might want to preview for younger teens—the HBO adaption’s been characterized as “The Sopranos Go to Middle Earth”) who enjoy the Fantasy or Science Fiction genres might well appreciate George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which is available in various formats. The five titles in the series (I’m nearly finished with the first, and thoroughly enjoying it) are:

For the hacker in your life. Tech gifts needn’t always be the super-expensive items. Sometimes they can cost surprisingly little. For example:

  • A lot of people who like to experiment with tech might appreciate an inexpensive tablet. No, you’re not going to be able to pick up an iPad or a Galaxy Tab–or anything nearly that powerful–in the $75-$200 range. But sometimes all a person’s looking for is something that can do more than an e-reader, yet they don’t really need anything high-end, and they like to tinker. You’d be surprised what you can find. Not long ago was selling the Velocity Cruz Micro T301 (apparently a discontinued model) for $69.99 + shipping, and Barnes and Noble has been known to make lightly used Nook Colors available for as little as $149. Both can be rooted, making them more versatile devices than they are out of the box.
  • Not all gifts need to be purchased, either. Do you know someone who’d like to get more comfortable with Linux, for instance, but doesn’t want to install it on their primary machine? Do you have an old computer laying around, gathering dust, and you don’t know what to do with it? Consider passing it on. Many Linux distributions run just fine on older hardware, and your hacker can experiment to their heart’s content without worrying about messing up their work machine.


  • SSD Drive (prices vary)
  • DragonExpress ($49)
  • PlugBug ($35)
  • … and for the bad kids: Blackboard instead of coal (~$1,000,000/year) – oddly enough, it’s the most expensive!?


  • For the gadget lover. With so many new ereaders and tablets on the market, it’s a great time to pick up an affordable and snazzy device. While I love my iPad, and it’s still a great choice for a big-ticket present, the Kindle Fire—at $199—is an incredible bargain and great for a wide range of media consumption. The Kindle readers, at $79 and $99, are affordable and still useful and fun gifts.
  • For the young reader. Whether you go with ebooks or the more traditional bound versions, books are still a great gift.  For teen and older readers waiting for the upcoming Hunger Games film, some great recent sci-fi and fantasy dystopian novels include Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Karen Sandler’s Tankborn, Caragh O’Brien’s Birthmarked Trilogy and Lauren DeStefano’s Wither. For the slightly younger crowd, Colin Meloy’s Wildwood, John Stephens’s The Emerald Atlas, and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making are beautiful titles from this year that offer fantastic fairy-tale adventures.
  • For the gamer. Unlike Ryan, I haven’t started playing Skyrim yet, though I look forward to picking it up once the semester is over (be warned: this genre is addictive!). Other great choices include Professor Layton and the Last Specter, a story-driven puzzle and logic game for the handheld Nintendo DS; LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7, with its adorable platformer versions of the famous series; or the soon-to-be released massively multiplayer Star Wars: The Old Republic. A new peripheral can also be a great gift, and the Kinect (Microsoft’s full body motion controller) is looking even better this year with new games like Dance Central 2 and Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2012 that can appeal to a whole family.


  • If your gift recipient has a major gadget, an add-on makes a lot of sense. For my iPad, I’ve got my eye on the great handmade covers that can be found on Etsy, like this one; a wireless keyboard; and an SD card reader.
  • Jeff mentioned Geraldine Brooks’s novel March. I’ve not read that yet, but thanks to recommendations from colleagues I snapped up two other books by her, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague and People of the Book: A Novel. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood is another favorite recent read. And although I haven’t yet read it,  Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker (who’s on Twitter as @History_Geek) looks really fascinating.
  • Routine helps me be organized in my work and everyday life, and that includes having a limited number of go-to products like shampoo and lotion. But sometimes getting a treat item every now and then can be a great pick-me-up. Birchbox is a company that sends out boxes monthly with four to five samples of deluxe skincare, body, and hair products. You can give someone a subscription gift for $10 a month, for a total of three, six, or twelve months. The mini sizes would be perfect for your gift recipient to keep in their office drawers or pack for travel.
  • If you know someone who likes to cook, you can’t go wrong with a great chef’s knife. The Victorinox 40520 Fibrox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife from Amazon is an amazing buy at $24.99.
  • And this is a shameless plug for the business of a family friend, but fresh, fragrant balsam fir wreaths from Dickens Farms are a lovely gift. The wreaths come perfectly packaged and ready to hang immediately. For someone like me who can never get her act together to decorate my home for Christmas, I always look forward to receiving one of these in the mail from my mother-in-law. Instant Christmas.


  • The LiveScribe Smartpen is perfect for that person who still loves to take notes longhand but would like them easily searchable and editable on a computer.
  • For the bibliophile in your life, consider Nox, Anne Carson’s haunting elegy for her brother. Part poem, part artist’s book, and part translation, Nox is a stunning meditation on memory, loss, and textuality. It’s not the most cheerful of holiday gifts, but it may be one of the most moving.
  • Tired of your small laptop screen? Get a second monitor! And then get this great rotating and vertically adjustable 3M monitor stand!


  • For the Reader in Your Life: A subscription to Powell’s Indiespensible series. This is a gift that keeps on giving.  Powells, an independent bookstore in the Pacific Northwest, offers this subscription program for avid readers and book lovers. Here’s how it works: for $40 per “issue,” members get a signed edition of a pre-selected book plus a few extra goodies and the cost of UPS ground-shipping. Selections favor independent presses (hence the name, “INDIE-spensible,” get it?!) and include, in addition to the signed edition itself, other fun items such as caramel corn, a Moroccan spice blend, and galley proofs of unpublished novels.  Members have no input in the selection process, but upcoming editions are announced a few weeks ahead of time so that if you know that you don’t want one of the titles, you can opt out before being billed.  There were 7 shipments in 2011, which included novels such as Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and The Night Circus, the debut novel from Erin Morgenstern. Granted $40/shipment is a bit more expensive than if you were to buy each title separately, but these are signed editions, and overall I’ve been pleased with these selections, some of which I would not have picked up on my own (case in point, Turn of Mind by Alice La Plante, which blew my mind). Plus, you’re supporting a great independent bookstore to boot.
  • For the Health-Conscious: Earlier this year, I began to use a fitness tracking armband, a BodyMedia FIT. I’ve written in other posts about my quest for fitness, and my new running regimen, but one of my primary concerns was making sure that I was eating enough to sustain my exercise but not so much as to undo the benefits.  Such balance can be elusive! The BodyMedia armband tracks several different physiological indicators (skin temperature, ambient temperature, steps taken, etc.) to come up with a more accurate sense of caloric expenditure. It has been incredibly useful to me over the last few months, but it is also a subscription based service. Not only must users purchase the armband (between $180 and $260 depending on model and accessories), but they also must pay a monthly fee to use the tracking software (between $7-13 per month depending on the length of commitment you make when you sign up). The downside to the armband is, well, the fact that you are wearing an armband. It’s not a big deal this time of year because it is hided by long sleeves, but it can be a bit obtrusive during the warmer months.
  • For the Coffee or Tea Lover: Like many of our readers, I drink a lot of coffee and tea, particularly in the winter, and I have had a difficult time finding mugs in my preferred size (18oz).  I came upon this insulated mug whilst shopping for something completely different, and had to give it a try because the price was right (especially with a coupon for an additional markdown). I couldn’t be more pleased. In addition to a good mug, an electric kettle is another essential. I have two of these: one at home and one in my office.  Both get used multiple times a day.
  • For the iPhone user: I don’t have an iPhone, but some of the covers I have seen on Etsy lately have made my want one. Take, for example, this one, which has a wrist strap and a pocket for cash and/or your credit card and ID. Or these customized wooden cases. Or this one for the Dr. Who fans among us.


  • I’ll go big with my first suggestion. I love my Mulholland briefcase. It was a graduation present from my parents, it survived my grad school years, and it’s still reliable after a few years professing. Expensive, but much-loved (mine is the “bridle tan” color).
  • The good news? I haven’t watched much television in the evenings since November 11. Why not? Because I’ve been playing Skyrim. This game sucks you into its world and will keep you there for as long as you allow it. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but man is it fun!
  • Each year my wife buys me an edition of my favorite book, Moby-Dick, for Christmas. This year I’m hoping for Moby-Dick in Pictures, in which artist Matt Kish created one illustration based on “every page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition.” This book would complement the phenomenal Moby-Dick: A Pop-Up Book (Christmas 2009) that always wows my students. Along these same lines, I think that these Moby-Dick book posters, which print the entire text of the novel on two 700 x 1000mm sheets, would look amazing on my office wall.
  • We write about the importance of backing up data quite a lot at ProfHacker. Tell someone you love them by giving them off-site backup for their data. My personal favorite is Backblaze, but there are others, such as Mozy and Carbonite.
  • I’ve also become completely enamored with the Postbox email client, which I first learned about through my ProfHacker colleague Mark. The keyboard shortcuts save me time, and I love the way Postbox integrates with Twitter and Dropbox. It’s a bit pricey for an email client, though, which means it would make a nice gift.


  • Arduino, the open-source rapid prototyping platform, makes for a great gift, especially in Adafruit’s Experimentation Kit for Arduino, which gives you lots of little wires, LEDs, a motor, a force sensor (think touch, not Jedi), and more, for $85. It’s a terrific way to learn more about how electronic devices work, and a cool outlet for creativity. As far as target audience, it varies: On the one hand, the Arduino has real capacity, and can be used in all sorts of clever ways.  On the other hand, my 8-year-old got one for his birthday last year, and has been super-excited to build with it.  Once you get started down this path, you’ll probably want a boss electronics toolkit, too.
  • If you have an iPad, an add-on that makes an entertaining gift is the Atari Arcade. This is a base for your iPad with a joystick and 4 buttons, and it runs ports of 99 (!) old-school Atari games, from the ones you remember to ones you probably don’t. I was going to say that it probably appeals most to gamers of a certain age, but my 8yo loves it. (He got one for St. Nick’s, a Milwaukee-area tradition my wife’s family observes.) It’s so fun, in fact, that my wife–who ignored first a Wii, and then an Xbox Kinect, and who asked for Sims for Christmas a couple of years ago and has never played it, and who has been less than uninterested in the iPad–snuck off with my iPad to play Millipede and Asteroids.
  • I don’t mean to pre-empt my upcoming review of the device on ProfHacker, but the Doxie Go portable scanner is an incredibly handy thing, and fun to use, too!
  • Nerdy books for all ages: The Cult of LEGO, by John Baichtal and John Meno, is an awesome coffee table book that illustrates the myriad uses to which LEGO has been put. If you still think LEGO is just for kids, Baichtal and Meno’s book will change your mind. Perfect for anyone who is, or ever has been, obsessed with everyone’s favorite modular brick. Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham’s Level Up is a beautiful graphic novel, from the award-winning writer of American-Born Chinese, about the conflict between living your dreams, and living up to your parents’—one that doesn’t, ultimately, reduce the parents to inflexible monsters. Last year, I recommended Daniel Loxton’s children’s book about natural selection, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came To Be, because it was my kid’s favorite book of that year. Loxton’s back with a book for younger readers, Ankylosaur Attack, which offers photorealistic images of dinosaurs and prehistoric environments, as a pair of ankylosaurs ward off a T. rex attack. It’s great fun.  For the board book set, it’s hard to go wrong with HTML for Babies.
  • Music! Jonathan Coulton’s newest album of funny, wry, nerd-friendly pop, Artificial Heart is one of the most entertaining albums of the year. They Might Be Giants released two great albums in 2011, Join Us and Album Raises New and Troubling Questions. The latter is a compilation of alternate takes (like the excellent electronica version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” plus the insta-classic Onion AV Club-inspired cover of Chumbwumba’s “Tubthumping.” Deer Tick’s Divine Providence includes what I can only assume to be the canonical message of all rock songs, “Let’s All Go to the Bar.”


  • Sport-minded friends might like a GPS-enabled sport watch.  I have recommended Garmin Forerunner watches in ProfHacker posts before, but there is a new one.  Unlike the previous Garmin watches, the Garmin Forefunner 405CX GPS Sport Watch is smaller (the others were like wearing a Volkswagen on your wrist).  This one is GPS-enabled, tracks distance, pace, and heart rate.  It then wirelessly sends your training data to your computer for later analysis.
  • The Nathan Streak Reflective Vest was created for runners who find most vests uncomfortable or not very useful.  The vest is made of a soft, lightweight, breathable mesh that’s designed to allow a full range of motion.  The vest offers 360-degree visibility at distances of up to 1,200 feet, so drivers, cyclists, and other runners can see you clearly after the sun sets. The adjustable-fit vest also includes large reflective patches on the chest and waist and reflective strips on the shoulders.
  • It’s no secret around ProfHacker headquarters that I love taking photographs.  I own Nikon equipment, so I’m partial to that brand.  I have found that the Nikon 7072 Lens Pen cleaning system is a great accessory for cleaning lenses.  It has a soft retractable brush combined with a non-liquid compound that removes fingerprints, dust, and other debris from your camera lens.  It’s soft and easy to use.
  • I’m also a coffee drinker, and drinking from a coffee mug shaped like a Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 AFS lens just makes me giddy happy.  Maybe the coffee loving photographer in your life would like one too.  To be fair, however, there is a Canon lens 70-200mm f/2.8 coffee mug.  Both are plastic outside but have stainless steel inside.
  • Lastly, I love my iPad and I use it constantly.  The Leather Carrying Case Cover / Folio with Built-in Stand has kept the iPad protected, but it almost makes using the iPad almost anywhere very easy.


  • Movies: When I saw Of Gods and Men, I thought it was the greatest film I’d ever seen. Then I saw The Tree of Life which became my new number one.
  • Coffee: If the person you’re buying for drinks coffee, a French press is nice. The brand doesn’t much matter.
  • Gadgets: A second monitor is always a good idea. So are a wireless mouse and keyboard. The Logitech Darkfield Laser mice work even on glass, which is really nice if your desk is covered with glass. This Belkin mini surge protector offers multiple outlets and charges USB devices.


  • If you know someone who spends long hours at the computer and is beginning to complain of wrist or hand pain, an ergonomic keyboard makes a nice gift. I’ve used a Goldtouch keyboard for many years, as it’s fully adjustable in both hand separation and tilt angle. This means you can adjust it to suit your individual physical needs, rather than trying to fit your hands to your keyboard. The latest model is compatible for both PC and Mac (older versions came in two flavors).
  • Although I own a yoga travel mat, I’ve found Yoga-Paws to be a better solution: they take up very little space in my bag and provide good traction on both flooring and carpet.  This way, I get to travel light and still maintain my practice.
  • For a multi-pet household, keeping several water bowls filled and mopped up can be a hassle. I’ve been very happy since we started using the DogIt water fountain, which provides always-fresh filtered water for my three canine companions. The same company also makes a smaller version, CatIt, for cats or very small dogs.
  • Some non-fiction books I enjoyed in 2011: Casey Reas & Chandler McWilliams, Form+Code, a beautiful and thought-provoking look at computational art. David Kavady’s  Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty introduces graphic design concepts for non-artists.  Diane Ackerman’s 100 Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing is a memoir that many writers or academics will find compelling.
  • Some fiction I’d recommend:  Lev Grossman’s The Magician King (a strong sequel to his 2009 The Magicians); Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination; Ann Patchett, State of Wonder; and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot.


  • For the blogger: The more that I’ve blogged over the last few years, the more I’ve appreciated MarsEdit. It’s a handy tool for drafting posts, editing those that you’ve already posted, and doing it all across multiple blogs. It plays nice with WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, and many other platforms. It’s Mac-only, but so it goes. If you’re not sure why you should use a blogging client or want to know some options for a Windows user, don’t miss Amy’s post on the subject.
  • For the gadget lover: Two months ago I moved into a new space with my colleagues in Emory’s Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC). It’s a lovely space, but we’re completely nomadic: no offices, no workstations. But in giving those things up, I got an incredible new MacBook Air. Although the screen is only 13″, the resolution is the same as my 15″ MacBook Pro, which means that I’m as comfortable working on this laptop and it only weighs half as much. What’s more, the Air is so portable that I’m leaving the iPad in my bag more and more these days. Sure, it’s expensive. But isn’t that gadget lover in your life worth it?
  • For the tablet owner: So you’ve got a ProfHacker friend who has recently purchased a tablet? Help her experiment with using the iPad / Galaxy / Kindle Fire as a writing surface with the best capacitive stylus I’ve used: the Acase 2nd Generation. It’s got super responsive tip and is more narrow than most other styli. It works fabulously on those iPad apps we can’t live without or iAnnotate PDF (covered here and here).
  • For the music lover: I’ve not had as much time to explore music this year as I would like. But there have still been some amazing albums. Here are five that could appeal to a range of listeners:
    • Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. Heartbreakingly gorgeous vocal harmonies and neu Americana musings. Even my parents like this one.
    • Neon Indian, Era Extraña. What it sounds like to take a cassette of 1980s new wave and listen to it 900 times in a row on a tape deck without constant playback speed.
    • Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact. What do you get when you mix Middle Eastern flavors, dance synths, and Manhattan experimentalism? The best opening track of the year.
    • Los Campesinos, Hello Sadness. Possibly my favorite band for the last four years, this septet produces tweaked twee laced with some of the most improbable lyrical combinations imaginable.
    • Yelle, Safari Disco Club. Possibly my kids’ favorite. Straight-up French dance pop. It’s not sophisticated, but you can brush up on that secondary language again!
    • Honorable mentions to Washed Out, Kisses, and Acid House Kings.
  • For the gamer: Despite what Ryan and Anastasia might have you think, not all games need run on a WiiStation 360. It’s hard to beat board games for a social experience with family, friends, or kids. The world of modern designer boardgames includes such increasingly well known games as The Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride. The most played games at my house this year? Pandemic, where you work with others against the board to defeat global disease outbreaks, and 7 Wonders, a 30-minute Civilization-building game that plays as easily with 7 players as it does 3.

“Holiday Lights” photograph courtesy of Flickr user ilovememphis / Creative Commons License

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