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ProfHacker 2014 Holiday Gift Guide

Round trees at night, lit with holiday lights Why is this post different from all other posts? Because it’s the annual ProfHacker gift guide! If December is a busy time for most people, it’s always seemed that much busier to me since becoming an academic: there’s finals, grades, and all those department parties competing for my attention when what I really need to do is figure out what I should get my wife. That’s where this guide comes in. We’ve got the recommendations you need for the coffee / exercise / tech enthusiast in your life, as well as any kids or run-of-the-mill bibliophiles you might need to gift.

And if for some reason you need more ideas than what we’ve thrown at you here, take a look at our lists from 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Just consider this our gift from Team ProfHacker to all of you!

Anastasia

New games and game subscriptions are always at the top of my list. I spend a lot of my time playing video games, and I particularly love games that give me the opportunity to connect with friends and family who live in other parts of the country.

World of Warcraft has been around for a decade now, so as someone who has been paying for a subscription all that time I’m pretty firmly invested. A new expansion, Warlords of Draenor, was just released that’s actually a great time for new or lapses players to pick up a game that’s still the reigning king of massively multiplayer gaming. Be warned, there’s a lot to do and it’s very addictive: players get to take on the role of commander and build garrisons in the new land, and sometimes it can feel like a management simulation but in the best possible way. The core game is now very cheap, and the new expansion makes a great gift to entice a friend to join you.

If you’re picking something for a more solo gamer, there are tons of great new games. I particularly recommend games by Telltale Games, which has scored licenses for both Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and produced some very compelling stories that fans of those series will enjoy.

Also consider looking at works by independent designers. Many great creators have Patreon programs and other set-ups where you can donate on a friend’s behalf, often with rewards and exclusive content for backers. You can also find unusual content through sites like Vodo.net and Indie Games that often amount to great digital stocking stuffers.

If you’re looking for something more concrete, there are lots of cool tech toys worth a look this year. I particularly like the sleek design and cool functionality of Chromecast, Google’s wireless solution for broadcasting content from your laptop to your television set. (Editor: See Ryan’s review of the Chromecast here.) It’s a very flexible alternative to streaming solutions like Apple TV.

For music lovers, wireless speakers can also be a great choice: check out the SONOS if you’re feeling fancy, and the Alpatronix if you’re looking for something really portable and flexible.

Lincoln

  • In the past year I got a reading lamp, and it’s one of the best things ever. My eyes aren’t that old, but reading is much easier than it was before. I have a generic model from Ikea, but any kind will do.
  • I love my Timbuk2 Command messenger bag. Good for airports and the office.
  • I’ve asked for the movie Of Gods and Men since it came out in 2011. It’s the story of a Trappist monastery in Algeria, and probably the best movie on religion I’ve ever seen. Will this be the year?
  • Do you know a digital humanist who wants to level up? Then help him or her learn R from the master with Hadley Wickham’s Advanced R. Or learn D3.js from Elijah Meek’s D3.js in Action (available as it is being written from Manning).

Jeff

Tech

  • Pebble Steel Smartwatch. If you want to give a gift this holiday season and not wait for Apple’s Watch, check out the Pebble Smartwatch. It syncs with your iOS or Android phones and has a growing developer community to create a number of apps, including Misfit (an exercise and sleep monitor), as well as Pandora, Evernote, and other mainstream tools.
  • Video adapters can make a big difference if your recipient travels a lot with their laptop. Being able to connect not only to the projector in a presentation room, but also to the display in a hotel room, or the TV at home can be incredibly useful. I use this Mini-DiplayPort with DVI/HDMI/VGA outputs, but this whole line is particularly useful.
  • Cables: When it comes to connecting cables, don’t let your friends and family buy expensive HDMI and VGA cables at box stores. Buy a stock of the inexpensive AmazonBasics or the dirt-cheap cables at Monoprice and just give them out to people you know are getting new electronic devices.

My book choices this year

Adeline

Skin Care. True story: I was so stressed out during graduate school and my first year of my tenure-track job that my skin went nuts. My dermatologist declared me allergic to all moisturizers, and for the past 10 years I’ve been resigned to dealing with irritated, flaking skin during fall and winter. A few months ago I was thrilled to discover a solution to my skin care woes: the ludicrous-sounding 10-step Korean skin care regime, which has won me over for two reasons: 1) unlike many US or European products, Korean skincare products offer much higher value for your money (a Korean drugstore brand would be at the level of a department store brand here); and 2) the regimen and the products work. Almost immediately. I am extremely skeptical of product claims, lazy to undertake beauty rituals, and can be kind of a Scrooge, but I am completely won over. My skin is the best it’s ever been. My favorite US-based sites to shop at are MemeBox, which offers non-subscription skincare boxes at huge discounts (given that you don’t know the exact contents of most of the boxes until you receive them), and Peach and Lily, a US-based online store which offers products carefully curated by Alicia Yoon and Cindy Kim. Some of my favorite products so far have been the Missha Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail Cream ($32) and skin treatment ($24. Yes, snail mucin, or the magic stuff that snails leave behind while traveling, is amazing for both sensitive and acne-prone skin, and is a highly popular ingredient in Korean skin care), the Missha Geumsul Vitalizing Eye Cream ($45. It contains flecks of gold, and is the best eye treatment I’ve ever tried), the Missha First Treatment Essence ($35, and a cult favorite), and the Liole night acne treatment ($17.50). The best thing about these items is that they come in quality, luxe packaging and boxes, making excellent gifts. Good stocking stuffer options include the Liole snail sheet mask ($3), the Missha Lavender Micro Mist ($12.90) and the Caolion “Where Is Pore?” mask ($20). If you’ve ever suffered from skin troubles, give these products a try.

Food. Whenever I’m on campus I often find myself running on empty by 3pm and heading over to the vending machine. Graze (about $6 a box) offers a much healthier and tastier alternative to my afternoon indulgences. The service sends you four boxes of portion-controlled, healthy snacks (ranging from delicious mixtures of nuts, seeds, chocolate, popcorn and crackers) as often as once a week. Unlike the usual vending machine offerings, these snacks sustain me for much longer, being a mix of healthy fat and protein. My friendcode ADELIN52P will get you your first and fifth boxes for free for your own subscription, but I’m not sure if it works for gifts. Another snack option I’ve been enjoying is Love With Food (between $10-$24.50, ranging from size of box & gluten-free options), a subscription box service that sends you a box full of organic or all-natural snacks every month. Love With Food donates a meal to a hungry child for every box they send out, and also offers gift subscriptions.

For School. This huge bag from LugLife has been my going-to-school bag for close to six years now, and I even use it alone for short business trips. It may not be fashionable, but I love it. It has a million different pockets, including interior pockets just for your water bottle and cell phone, and is very hard-wearing. It’s been six years, and my bag still looks great.

Cookbooks. One of my favorite ways to relax is to read cookbooks. I may not ever try the recipes out, but I love flipping through their thick, glossy pages for fun. For this reason I think that cookbooks make wonderful gifts for people who enjoy food. Some of my all-time favorites are What to Cook and How to Cook It (really helpful for beginner cooks), Mark Bittman’s well-known How to Cook Everything, Elizabeth Andoh’s Washoku, Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen and Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.

Geekery. I’m getting really into swanking up my phone photography, and if someone you love is as well, visit Photojojo, purveyor of some very luscious photography swag. A great entry-level gift would be their Phoneography online course (only $10, and starting January 1st!), their Phoneography starter kit ($30, including $60 of equipment including the online course plus a wide-angle lens!), or, if you’re feeling particularly generous, the Sony QX lens which turns your phone into a DSLR (whoaaa…) Signing up here will give you $5 in your account to use towards whatever. Also, I’m a great fan of Loot Crate, a monthly subscription (about $20/month) which hooks you up with some pretty awesome swag. It usually includes a t-shirt of some kind (women’s sizes included!) as well as several cool toys. If people you know are into geek fandom items like Star Trek/Star Wars, anything Joss Whedon, Transformers, or Adventure Time, this is a great gift idea.

Finally, if you’re still stuck for gift ideas, these are some of my favorite stores for interesting items at a moderate price. First: Modcloth, a store selling quirky, interesting accessories, clothes and shoes, and secondly, Cents of Style, a website which offers fashionable items of substantial quality for much less than you’d get at the mall.

Jason

  • Groovy Lab in a Box. Groovy Lab in a Box offers you everything you need to do a whole slew of science experiments on a given topic each month. There’s also online support for further experiments and research. I will say I tried this with the 11yo, a 7th-grader who loves science, and he thought he was about 3 years too old for it. Good for incipiently nerdy elementary school kids.
  • Makey Makey Dubbed “an invention kit for anyone,” Makey Makey turns anything that conducts electricity into an interface for a computer. (Canonical examples include using fruit to play instruments, drawing interfaces with pencils, and so forth.) Makey Makey is great for all ages, but probably most ideal for elementary and middle school students. (That said, you can hook it up with a Pi or an Arduino and do super-cool stuff, too.)
  • Kano Speaking of a Rasperry Pi, the Kano is an awesome implementation: it’s a snap-together computer, more or less, that even a kid can build. (The aforementioned 11yo was running programs on it in about 7 minutes, and he had to wait for a firmware update.) It includes everything but a monitor. I backed this on Kickstarter, and although it was s-l-o-w to finish, has turned out a real treat.
  • If your gift recipient is patient and likes robots, they might be interested in the Edison. Edison is a LEGO-compatible robot that can sense aspects of its environment. It seems like it will be fun. They are taking pre-orders now, and assert that they’ll ship in mid-December, but I backed this as a Kickstarter, and it shipped yesterday … and the estimated delivery is December 31! (Fortunately, the 11yo has gotten used to waiting for things after the Kano … I’m a terrible dad.)
  • For people who come at making and creative projects via crafts, one of the Sew Electric kits is just the ticket. You can either get the book or kits that include needles, batteries, LEDs, and even an Arduino. It’s awesome.
  • Brass tacks, though? Pretty sure what the 11yo really wants for Christmas is those Beats wireless headphones, which LOL.
  • A few soccer-related items: Jonathan Wilson’s The Anatomy of Liverpool: A History of Ten Matches is, like all Wilson’s work, a deeply informative, compelling read. Liverpool fans who are reeling a bit this fall might well re-fire their imagination by reading Make Us Dream: The Story of Liverpool’s 2013/14 Season, by Neil Atkinson, John Gibbons, and other Anfield Wrap contributors, or for the more historically-minded, Tony Evans’s I Don’t Know What It Is But I Love It: Liverpool’s Unforgettable 1983—1984 Season. Parents of goalkeepers will be interested in GloveGlu, which helps fight the awful stink associated with the gloves.
  • If your recipient loves the rock music, then there are some excellent recent choices: Obviously I’m going to recommend The Hold Steady’s Teeth Dreams)—which, in all seriousness, will make you as happy as $5 possibly can. In non-Hold Steady releases this year, I really liked Restorations LP3, Cory Branan’s The No-Hit Wonder), We Were Promised Jetpacks’s (Unravelling), The Old 97s’ Most Messed Up), and Lost and Rootless by Tim Barry. (Shoutout to Richmond, VA and to Avail!)

Natalie

Erin

  • SONOS Play:1. I’ve been eyeing the Sonos for a long, long time—well before the prices came down enough for me to even consider. The Sonos Play:1 is Amazon’s best-selling bookshelf speaker. Sonos has long been known for its sound quality, and the Play:1 connects to your wifi and can be controlled via a free smartphone app. It will stream Pandora, Spotify, and more, and it will also stream from your computer’s music library whether iTunes or another mp3 library. Unlike most bluetooth speaker, it doesn’t stream through the phone, so you can still make (or accept) a call. If you like the Sonos, you can grow your network by adding additional speakers, and if you are interested in avoiding wifi competition on the network, the Sonos Bridge creates a dedicated network for the Sonos devices so it doesn’t need to compete with other devices.
  • Oiselle Running/Workout Clothing
    • Side-Zip Long-Sleeve. Oiselle makes some of my most favorite work-out clothes. A Company run by women for women, they’ve been taking the women’s running clothes market by storm this year. The Side-Zip is one of my favorites; I love it so much that I have it in multiple colors. It has thumb-holes and a pocket that fits my phone and a credit card or ID, and the fabric is wonderfully soft but also awesomely functional. Finally, it’s one of the few running tops I have that crosses over from workout clothing to casual wear.
    • Oiselle Moto Lesley Knickers. For my weather sensibilities, the knickers are great for 40-55 degrees (F) and the tights are ideal for colder weather until it gets into the teens (colder than that, I typically stay inside). They are really comfortable and wick well. And lastly, they look cool–not just another pair of basic black (though to be sure, there’s something to be said for basic black too!)
    • Oiselle Wazzie Wool baselayer. This top is expensive, but it is worth every penny. Paradoxically, it is super-warm, and it also breathes really well. It’s very soft, and I may well be doing extra-loads of laundry this winter to keep it in a regular rotation. `
  • YogaToes. Like many women “of a certain age” who spend a lot of time on my feet, I’m developing a bunion. YogaToes look funny and they take some getting used to, but they have really helped loosen up my feet and strengthen my toes, a key consideration in slowing the bunion progression according to many doctors, including mine. I wear these when I’m grading papers or reading.
  • I’m also obsessed with Smartwool socks. My favorites are the Arabica II. They’re thin but warm, and they actually stay up.
  • Sparkly Soul Headband. These headbands are, as the name suggests, sparkly and a little on the whimsical side, or they could be depending on your color choice. These are great for keeping your hair out of your face—they’re not too tight to be uncomfortable or cause breakage, and the sparkles are not only fun, they also mean that the headband is easy to find, even if it ends in the bottom of a gym bag.
  • Who couldn’t use a Ninja Thumb Drive? Both fun and distinctive, the Ninja Drive is available in 8, 16, and 32GB.
  • As an English professor who teaches contemporary fiction, I often get asked for books recommendations. Here are the most recent:

Brian

Board Games: Both Ryan and I like to recommend at least one board game every year. (You can see his below.)

  • The one that we have played more than any else in my house is Terror in Meeple City, which was called Rampage until recently. In this game you construct a cityscape with buildings supported by meeples and use your big, blocky wooden monster to jump on or blow down buildings. You’ll be flicking ice cream trucks at the other monsters trying to knock them down. It’s tremendous fun and laugh-out-loud silly, and my kids can’t get enough of it.
  • Our other favorite this year is Mascarade. Everyone at the table is given a role card (king, queen, judge, inquisitor, and so on). The game starts when the cards are flipped over and the first person takes someone else’s card, puts it under the table and switches it—or doesn’t—with their own card. When people try to take the power of their card, they might find out that they’re not who they thought they were. It plays 2—13 players, although it shines at 6 or more, and it’s hilarious.

Music

  • This year started out a bit slow for me, but has picked up tremendously at the end. My favorite album of the year, however, was not even a contest. Black Mother Super Rainbow front man Tobacco’s Ultima II Massage is an explosion of crunchy analog synths and warped vocals. The track “Lipstick Destroyer” is the catchiest and grungiest thing you’ve ever heard. Like eating cotton candy off the floor of a movie theater. It’s not surprising at all to me that Tobacco DJs roller-skate parties in Pittsburgh.
  • After all of that noise and scuzz, I gravitated toward the poppier side of things. I also loved the third LPs from both The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Tennis, either of which could be vying for second place for my favorite album. It was a good year for returns too if you consider Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers’ _Brill Bruisers and Aphex Twin’s Syro. _And I’ve been coming around in a big way to Future Islands’ Singles.
  • For holiday music, one of my favorite bands of all time, Los Campesinos, has a Christmas EP coming out TODAY. One can only imagine how gloomy it will be. But I’m also loving the chance to catch up with Sufjan Stevens’s Songs for Christmas, which I think is a classic.

Books

  • William Gibson’s The Peripheral is all that I’ve got on my mind right now, and it’s tremendous.
  • But this summer I polished off some more China Miéville from my backlog. I thought The City & The City was clever but found Kraken to be a joy throughout.

Tech: It wouldn’t be a ProfHacker list without some technology!

  • I recently received a pretty ingenious iPhone cable: Une Bobine is flexible, coiled metal. That means that you can bend it as you want, wrap it around objects, and even use it as a tripod. It doesn’t quite work with my phone’s case, but it holds it securely without. If you’ve ever wanted something a little bit more, well, flexible for your phone, Une Bobine might meet your needs.
  • No single product has been more loved by me this year than the Bose QC20i noise canceling headphones. I reviewed these earbuds last year and included them on the 2013 holiday gift guide, but they deserve another mention. I did a lot more traveling this year than I expected and my quality of life was improved radically by not hearing the constant drone of jet engines. But I use them when commuting and in my office almost as often, and there’s nothing else like them. They’re expensive, but if you have the ability to convince someone to get you a pair, you should absolutely do it.

Ryan

  • Do you remember the first time you saw someone playing Minecraft and thought: it’s like an endless Lego set… Well Lego has brought Minecraft into the physical world this year, and the sets are sure to blow the minds of any 6-to-12-year-olds in your life (and, let’s face it, you too). The sets are The Farm, The First Night, The Cave, The Ender Dragon, The Mine, and the one I’m perhaps most excited to dig into with my kids, The Crafting Box.
  • Here’s a techie stocking stuffer. The Photive 5-Port USB charger is smart, and will deliver the right amount of power for just about any USB device you plug into it. It’s also really compact, and can easily be stashed in suitcase or backpack for work or travel.
  • We’ve probably listed it here before, but The Settlers of Catan is the board game for those who like board games, assuming that any gamers on your list somehow missed this one. If you’re buying for someone already addicted to the game (like my family), perhaps a board frame to keep those pesky hexes in place while playing. For younger kids, No Stress Chess is a great way to learn the moves of a chess game without, as the title promises, getting stressed about all the different options. Our twin 6-year-olds love this game.
  • For the music lover on your list, consider some nice over-the-ear headphones. I finally bought some this year for my commute, and they certainly improve music and podcasts on the train. As a bonus, they don’t fit in my pocket and so are less likely to get accidentally washed. If you’ve got a large budget, these Bose Quiet Comfort 25s look very nice. In my price range, however, Sony’s MDR 7506 are quite nice for less than $100.
  • Another one for any, say, 5-10-year-olds on your list: the Ultra Stomp Rocket. Need I say more?
  • If you know any kids who were as obsessed with Avatar: the Last Airbender (the fabulous Nickelodeon series, not the terrible M. Night Shyamalan movie) as mine, they would certainly love the graphic novels, written and illustrated by the show’s creators, that continue the series’ stories: there’s The Search, The Promise, and, though it’s still only available in parts, The Rift Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
  • No list would be complete without books. This year I quite enjoyed (though these did not all come out this year) G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, Max Barry’s Lexicon, Mat Johnson’s Pym, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.

Amy

Odds are that you’ve got a tablet user in your life, and said person may at times be torn between going paperless and writing longhand. With a good stylus, one doesn’t have to choose. There are all kinds of styli to select from, from the very inexpensive to the rather pricey. I’ve found that the Adonit Jot Pro works very well. (I tried the Jot Script at one point, but I found it kept losing its connection to my iPad.)

For the movie and TV addict on your list, a Roku or other streaming media player makes a nice gift, and there are some very reasonably priced models available.

If you know someone who’s trying to get things done in an organized fashion, consider a ToDoist premium subscription, especially if that person uses a mix of platforms. (Things is wonderful, as Ryan rightly noted noted some years back, and sync now works well. Unfortunately, it’s only available for OS X and iOS.)

For the reader in your life who’d like a trip down memory lane, consider a gift of literature he or she might have enjoyed long ago. I’ve just finished re-reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence for the first time in about thirty years, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to the release of Kindle editions of John Christopher’s The Sword of the Spirits trilogy ([The Sword of the Spirits, The Prince in Waiting, and Beyond the Burning Lands in February.

If you have a little more money to spend, you might consider:

  • For the avid reader, a monthly subscription to Oyster, Kindle Unlimited, or Scribd. Comics lovers might appreciate Marvel Unlimited.
  • For the traveler who needs to keep up with work while on the road, but whose main computer is uncomfortably heavy to carry, an inexpensive (relatively speaking), lightweight travel computer might be welcome. Both the HP Stream and the Asus X205TA-RHATMN01 get good reviews, and the latter’s dropped below the $100 mark at times. They’re not powerhouses and they’re not expandable, but they do fine for everyday tasks while away from home.
  • For the person who needs to carry things to the office and/or who travels with a computer often enough to appreciate a TSA-compliant bag, Timbuk2 has some nice options. I’ve been using the small Commute Messenger for a little over two years, and still love it.

George

For serious or casual cyclists:

For music lovers:

  • For those mourning the demise of the iPod Classic, the FiiO X1 looks like a promising replacement that will play not only your MP3s, but also a variety of other audio file formats, including FLAC, WAV, and WMA. Just be sure to include a memory card on which to store the music.

Lead Image: “334/365: 11/30/2013. Holiday Decor at CBG!” by Flickr user peddhapati (CC-licensed)

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