ProfHacker 2012 Holiday Gift Guide

A bubble light in a Christmas treeWith the end of classes and the advent of…well, advent…it’s time for that post of all posts: the annual ProfHacker holiday gift guide!

To help you do better than you otherwise might during the Airing of Grievances, we’re here with a boatload of suggestions for your family, your friends, your colleagues, and even (on occasion) for yourself. Given the nature of our blog, you’ll see the expected recommendations for tech tools to increase your productivity. But it turns out that many a ProfHacker loves to read, some of us like to exercise, and a few of us like to cook. (All of us like to eat. You seriously don’t want to get in the way at the ProfHacker family cookouts.)

So when you need a break from grading students participation, just peruse the list and make some really tough decisions. And if you don’t find something you like here, we’ve got lists from 2011, 2010, and 2009 (AKA before we could talk about tablets and accessories for them).


  • For that colleague/friend/family member who has an iPad and is interested in using it for grading, I suggest a gift card with a recommendation to pick up iAnnotate PDF.  [Jason wrote about this app a couple of years ago, and Caleb McDaniel detailed his grading process last year, but I finally got around to trying it and have found it worth the $9.99 price.] The most recent release even allows editing of MS Word and Powerpoint.  The complementary gift to that might be a wireless keyboard for the iPad, either the official Apple version (~$70) or Logitech’s version (~$40).  If you want a free gift to give a fellow iPad user, get them hooked on Letterpress, an addictive, competitive word-forming game that you can play together or with others.
  • Two book recommendations this year: Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus (fantastical tale of two young illusionists) and Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook (a wonderfully readable account of the rise of forensic medicine in an era of poisons).
  • Finally, for someone who likes to cook, or at least chop, a high-quality kitchen knife can be transformative.  I’d recommend the Wusthof Classic line, especially this Santoku knife (~$70).


  • iPhone addicts will appreciate the Mophie iPhone Juice Pack, which ranges in price from about $70 to $130 (in relation to charging power). I bought the Mophie Air model recently. At first I hated how bulky the phone became because of the pack, but it quickly grew on me since my tweeting extravaganzas can run my phone down extremely quickly.
  • For the fitness-minded, or fitness-intended-minded, the Fitbit One is a great gift. A refresh from the Fitbit Ultra, the One has a 3-D accelerometer that measures how many steps you’ve taken, much distance you’ve travelled over the day, and even how many floors you’ve climbed. I received mine as an early Christmas present and have been addicted ever since. (And it’s been extremely motivating; compelling to move much more than I normally would.) The One syncs to the iPhone and to the web via a little USB dongle, allowing you to view all your activity (including your sleep patterns) over time in fun, colorful graphs. It will appeal to the data moguls around you. Below, Anastasia covers the One’s little cousin, the Fitbit Zip. Something else that might interest those who like to take long walks or runs is the Camelbak–a little water-filled reservoir that lives in a backpack. It’s a lot more handy than carrying a water bottle.


  • Though wifi is available in more and more places, it’s not yet available everywhere one might need it. Those who occasionally travel to places where they need to work but won’t have wifi access might find a no-contract mobile hotspot useful. I find that a Verizon Jetpack works very well, but it’s worth shopping around.
  • I can heartily second Jeff’s recommendation of iAnnotate PDF—it’s how I did nearly all of my reading and annotating for class this semester. I find that I like using it best with a stylus, and the Wacom Bamboo Solo is by far my favorite, both because of its solid feel and because its tip is a bit narrower than those found on most styli. (Please don’t ask why Amazon’s price is just over half what you’d pay at Wacom or at Best Buy, or why different colors are different prices. It doesn’t make any sense to me, either.) For using a stylus to take notes instead of to annotate, iPad users might want to check out Notability or Notes Plus.
  • In addition to the courses I’ve been taking at Loyola, one of the great benefits of my sabbatical this year has been having more time to read novels. I’ve just finished reading two sets that I’ve particularly enjoyed:
    • Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God. Together, they tell a really engaging story that explores themes of faith, doubt, intercultural encounter, and the problem of evil.
    • Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Chronicles, which consists of six books thus far. The series is historical fiction, and tells the story of (what was to become) England during the time time of the Danish invasions of the late ninth century. The volumes are:
    • If you or someone on your list enjoys either science fiction or historical fiction, these are worth a look.


  • For readers who enjoy comics or graphic novels, 2012 saw the publication of a number of gift-worthy titles. One of the most interesting ones, in my opinion, is Ugo Gattoni’s Bicycle, an incredibly detailed illustration of a bicycle race through London, published as a concertina. Chris Ware (the man who brought you Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth) has created the multi-book collection Building Stories, which contains “14 distinctively discrete books, booklets, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets. From Adrian Tomine we have New York Drawings, which features many of the covers and illustrations he’s created for The New Yorker over the last few years. Neil Gaiman’s beloved Sandman series finally received the boxed set treatment. Following the success of her 2007 work Fun Home, Alison Bechdel published Are You My Mother?, a memoir about her relationship with, yes, her mother. And finally, Hope Larsen has illustrated a graphic novel version of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time.


  • What says fun like the French Revolution? Nothing, that’s what! Which is why Guillotine is one of our favorite games. I received this head-lopping card game as a gift a few years ago, and since then it’s proved a great way to spend time with friends. A big advantage of Guillotine over other (much loved) board games like Settlers of Catan or Small World—it’s quick to set up and you can play a game in 15 minutes. Of course, we usually realize 5-6 games later that we’ve been playing awhile. A great gift for the gamer on your list.
  • If you’ve been following me on here for awhile, you know I’m a sucker for all things Moby Dick. So it shouldn’t shock that one of my favorite books this year was China Miéville’s Railsea, which reimagines Melville’s classic in a strange, steampunk world that I greatly enjoyed exploring. If someone on your list loves classic lit, steampunk, and/or scifi, they’ll probably enjoy Railsea.
  • They’re pricey, but Dodocase makes the most beautiful cases I’ve seen for iPads, Kindles, and other devices. The bamboo frames are very sturdy and mimic the look of notebook pages, while the covers complete the bibliophile effect.
  • If you really want to make a young geek’s Christmas, you could spring for the Lego Star Wars Death Star. A few years back my daughter received this as a joint gift from several family members, and it was the greatest moment of her young life. We both had lots of fun working together over many days to assemble it, and she’s now reliving the experience putting it back together after our recent move.
  • If you’re buying for someone who writes code for the web on a Mac, you might buy them a license for Coda 2, the recently-updated app from Panic. I won’t turn this into a mini-review of Coda, but suffice to say it’s a beautifully designed app with lots of features that make writing code for the web more enjoyable.


  • Ninja Standing Desk – I supported this on kickstarter when it came up and they look set to deliver in December. I’ve always wanted to have a standing desk but move around and travel too much to really make the investment worth it. This looks promising.


  • I am a crime-fiction junkie. If you know anyone who likes to read murder mysteries, crime novels, detective stories (contemporary or hard-boiled), you might consider one of these novels:
    • Anything by Michael Connelly, but I am most excited about his most recent: The Black Box, which was just published in late November 2012.
    • Tana French’s Broken Harbor (2012). Her other novels, In the Woods (2008), The Likeness (2009) and Faithful Place (2011) are also very good. All of them are set in Dublin and feature mysteries investigated by the Dublin Murder Squad.
    • Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) has been at the top of most “Best of 2012” lists. Her other novels, Dark Places (2010) and Sharp Objects (2007) are also great page-turners.
    • Lee Child has a new Jack Reacher book out, A Wanted Man. If you haven’t “met” him, Reacher is a former MP, who basically roams the United States solving crimes. The series started in with The Killing Floor, and now there are over a dozen installments. The books are entertaining and action-packed, so if you are looking for a fun read over the winter break, you could do worse than spend some time with Reacher. He’s also soon to make his motion picture debut this month.
    • Other fun thrillers: The Jonathan Quinn series by Brett Battles, beginning with The Cleaner; The Charlie Fox series by Zoe Sharp, beginning with Killer Instinct, or Andrew Peterson’s Nathan McBride series, beginning with First to Kill.
  • Other favorite novels that I read this past year include John Irving’s In One Person, Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Christopher Beja’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder.
  • For the non-bookworms among us, here are a couple other possibilities:
    • For the iPhone user, Uncommon offers a number of cool cases, and if you don’t like any of the ones they have (and it’s a pretty impressive variety in all kinds of different colors, patterns, and graphics), you can upload your own image, and they’ll make a custom case just for you. I’ve been using one of their “Deflector” models since March, and it looks as good as new despite a couple of drops in the meanwhile.
    • If the runner in your life doesn’t have a GPS watch yet, maybe now is the time to get one for him/her. The Garmin Forerunner 10 is a nice entry-level model that allows the user to track time, speed, distance, and calories-burned. The Forerunner 410 is a more advanced model that allows its user to take advantage of more advanced functions like a “virtual training partner,” interval training, and navigation (you can ask it to guide you back to your starting point). The 410 also can be paired with a heart-rate monitor.


  • Thermos travel mug. No one will ever need to design another travel mug besides this one. If I pour coffee into this in the morning, when I get to my office half an hour later the coffee will burn my tongue; if I leave it till early afternoon the coffee will still be drinkably warm. As long as you don’t overfill it, you can carry the mug upside down without leaks. And you can drop it on pavement without any damage. Now if only they could design a travel mug that you would remember to bring home with you at the end of the day.
  • Belkin mini surge protector. This mini power strip has three outlets—great for libraries and airports, where you’ll make friends easily. It also has two USB outputs, so you can charge your mobile devices without the need for a separate power adapter. I was glad my computer and phone were plugged into this when the power surged during Hurricane Sandy.
  • Roku box. If you use Netflix, Hulu, or other streaming media services, a Roku box is the cheapest way I know to get that content on your TV. The downside is that a person in your life might like it so much, that he or she might watch every MLB game of the season.
  • An experience. Everyone has enough stuff already, so give them an experience instead: something like tickets to the local symphony or opera or concert or another memorable experience.


  • For the iPad addicted, a ClamCase is a great travel keyboard solution that also offers an alternative for anyone coveting a tablet – laptop convertible machine. The hinged case with a built-in keyboard works well for imitating a netbook’s profile and flips back easily to standard tablet mode. It adds a bit of heft and it’s not the cheapest solution out there, but it’s flexible and it’s been a big part of my new no-laptop travel policy.
  • For anyone stuck at their desk all day, the Fitbit Zip can be a great incentive to get walking. A pedometer that syncs up via bluetooth with computers and smartphones, the Fitbit Zip keeps track of steps and provides a breakdown each day of distance traveled and time spent sedentary. I’ve found just looking at that chart can be an incentive to break up some of my work days with walks or runs. Plus, the small size and smiling emoticon face makes the device like a tamagotchi that feeds on exercise.
  • For kids on your list–okay, or for me, or just about anyone–the Lazer Tag app and blaster is a particularly awesome way to play with augmented reality and use your smartphone for a little live action mock combat. In single-player mode, it’s also a perfect training ground for preparing for that inevitable alien invasion.
  • For fellow fans of young adult literature, it’s been a great year. A few of my favorites include Libba Bray’s The Diviners, an occult mystery set in 1920s New York City; John Green’s heartbreakingly powerful story of love and cancer The Fault in Our Stars; Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer, a tale of magical bureaucracy; and Lois Lowry’s Son, the conclusion to the dystopian world that began with The Giver.


  • This year is the year my 9yo came down with a Star Trek obsession, thanks to the availability of episodes on Netflix. For those similarly afflicted, Star Trek Federation: The First 150 Years presents a history, along with several mementoes, of the origin myths of the Star Trek universe. Produced by the same folks who did The Jedi Path and The Book of Sith, Star Trek Federation introduces readers to Earth’s sordid future, its initial connections with the Vulcans, and more. And for more interactive Star Trek fun, why not settle in for an evening of Star Trek Catan, a Settlers of Catan mod based on the Star Trek universe?
  • Also for younger readers/engineers-in-training, Kathy Ceceri’s splendid Robotics uses papercraft and other easily-found art supplies, as well as cannibalized bits from toys and devices, to introduce kids to the principles behind robotics.
  • I asked the 9yo what he wanted for Christmas this year, and the good news was his list only had one item. The bad news? It was a MakerBot Replicator 2. He’s gonna be a sad kid on Christmas morning! (The moral: Don’t let your kids read Wired magazine!)
  • Parents of goalkeepers might enjoy Jonathan Wilson’s just-published The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper. Wilson’s previous book, Inverting the Pyramid, is a highly entertaining history of soccer tactics, and The Outsider is a similarly-detailed account of the existential madness apparently required to play the position.
  • 1 more thing for kids: The Rumpus’s Letters for Kids project will mail your child a letter every few weeks from a children’s / young adult author. We’ve had this for a while, and the 9yo loves it.
  • Pitched at kids, but fun for anyone is the LEGO Lord of the Rings video game, which offers you the opportunity to explore Middle Earth brick-by-brick. (Bonus: One of the ways you solve puzzles to have various characters throw Gimli towards otherwise unreachable targets. So, yes, there’s a lot of dwarf-tossing.)
  • Finally, I still think Randy Alfred’s Mad Science would appeal to just about any reader.


  • For the fitness enthusiast or desk jockey who suffers from stiff muscles and doesn’t have a personal masseuse on call 24×7, Trigger Point Performance has created wonderful tools for self-massage and myofascial release. I have the Hip and Lower Back kit, which includes rollers, massage spheres, and a DVD with instructions. Trigger Point makes a Grid foam roller that might make it onto my wish list this year, even though I have one from GoFit that I like quite well.
  • My favorite new workout is the combat rope, which combines core strength, upper body workout, and cardio benefits. I have the GoFit 40’ rope which is perfect if you’ve got a driveway or other space outside.
  • I’m very happy with my  Samsung Note 10.1 Android tablet, which I chose for its integrated stylus and stylus-enabled apps. It’s great for reading and annotating PDFs, for sketching and mind-mapping ideas, and for consuming video, audio, and web content of all kinds.
  • I love the benefits of holosync audio technology and I love the uplifting effects of kirtan and mantra. Eric Klein’s Mantrawave recordings combine these ancient and new technologies and are fantastic.
  • Some novels I enjoyed this year: John Lanchester, Capital; China Miéville, Embassytown; and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child.



  • Games
    • Who doesn’t like a big, cheesy, monster battle? Well that’s exactly what you get in King of Tokyo! Easily the favorite board game of the year around our home, it’s a dice-rolling game that’s simple enough for the six year-old to grok and gives adults enough of an excuse to beat up on each other that it was the nonstop activity during Thanksgiving with my parents and brother. Be the last monster standing is how you win, purchasing upgrades like fire breath, thunder stomp, and extra heads is how you get there. Highly recommended.
    • Another favorite game of the last year at our home is Galaxy Trucker. You race against the other players to build a spaceship from the different parts on the table and then fly those ships across the galaxy trying to avoid smugglers, asteroids, and taxes. No matter how nice of a ship you build (and that’s hard), it’s almost certainly going to be blown to bits. Hilarious. Combining tile-laying reminiscent of Carcassonne and real-time racing, it’s a lot more fun than a box of full of cardboard chits should be.
  • Music
    • We’re at the point of the year when we get to start arguing about the “best of the year” music lists. Fortunately, there’s no need to argue this year: Japandroids’ Celebration Rock is the clear winner. Amazing amounts of sound given the fact that it’s one guy on drums and one guy on guitar with no overdubs. I saw them last week, and they’ve got even more energy live than you would expect for a couple of guys who wrote a song called “Adrenaline Nightshift.”
    • Of course, there have been more great albums you and your loved ones should hear: Beach House’s Bloom continues to show how beautiful and haunting the duo is; Divine Fits’ A Thing Called Divine Fits answers the question, “What would happen if Wolf Parade and Spoon had a love child?” (spoiler: awesomeness); Tanlines Mixed Emotions is the best indie rock/electro album of the year, although VCMG’s SSSS gave it a run for its money; and if you’ve missed XTC, the new Jonquil album Point of Go should make you very happy. Wild Nothing’s Nocturne is bedroom/synth pop/reverby guitar done right. Finally, for the truly special person in your life, consider the remastered version of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. It’s only available as an import, and that explains why it’s so expensive.
  • Books
    • Like the other Profs. Hacker, I’ve read a few good books this year, and I too have been on a China Miéville kick. I’ll recommend for The Scar, which…well, which is about a city that floats, the summoning of a dimension-breaking beast, and a musical instrument called the “perhapsicordion.”
    • For poetry, I really enjoyed the playfulness of Guy Bennett’s Self-Evident Poems. But I’d heartily recommend anything by Natasha Trethewey, the new US Poet Laureate and my colleague at Emory. Her new book, Thrall, is gorgeous, but I’ve got a soft spot for Bellocq’s Ophelia, which I taught this year.
    • And the one thing on this list that I really want (in case you’re feeling generous): Hyrule Historia, which will be released in January 2013 contains the concept art from the Zelda franchise, an official chronology, and more. It’s a much better universe than Jason’s beloved Star Wars/Trek.
  • And more. . .
    • You can always find something interesting and unique on etsy, but actually choosing can be difficult. This year, however, you’re in luck. Etsy finally has gift cards available.
    • And finally, I wouldn’t make it through my day without my Thermos Intak water bottle. Built from super-tough plastic, it holds 24 ounces of water, but is still narrow enough to fit in my cup holder or the pockets of my backpack.

What have we missed that you’d like to see under your tree / Festivus pole? Let us know in the comments!

Lead photo: Annual Bubble Light Shot / Corey Balazowich / CC BY-ND 2.0

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