Posted on November 26, 2014 at 6:00 am
When people hear that I’m a librarian, they frequently assume that I’m a big reader. And I love a good novel, no doubt, but I can be easily distracted, lucky to finish a book in a month’s time, and my genre tastes are largely confined to some combination of wizards and spaceships. I wish I were conversant enough with the latest thriller or romance novel to talk about those genres comfortably, but I admit that our library members regularly embarrass me with just how much more they know about popular fiction than I do.
No, the thing I love about being a librarian is helping people solve problems through information, whether it’s finding plans for a wood cabinet, or recipes for home canning, or wiring diagrams for a ‘98 Ford Taurus. And in doing so, I’ve also had the opportunity to meet some fascinating people: crafters, tinkerers, dabblers, the kinds of folks who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and try something new. So when I first thought about doing a holiday gift guide for the SCLD blog, it was those folks who immediately sprang to mind.
I admit that, these days, I’m almost entirely an armchair tech nerd. With all the current hobbies that I already lack the time to keep up with, I can’t see myself investing in any new time-consuming and potentially expensive pursuits. But I still try to keep up with sites like MAKE magazine’s blog or check out recent Kickstarter tech projects so that I wouldn’t look like a complete noob if I were to stumble unaware into a Linux user group cocktail party.
I’ve managed to keep up well enough, at least, to know that DIY electronics enthusiasts are doing really clever things with Arduino microcontrollers, tiny computers that make it relatively easy for tinkerers to create electronic devices that interact with their environment. The Instructables website has a large collection of Arduino-based projects, many of them suitable for beginners, and MAKE magazine regularly features some of the awesome things people are making, like this mesmerizing sixteen-legged robot, this open-source knitting machine, or these ballet slippers that render a dancer’s movements as calligraphy-like strokes. If you know someone who might be interested in getting their feet wet, MAKE sells a Getting Started with Arduino Kit, which has all the parts you need to do the introductory examples in the book Getting Started with Arduino.
Programmable Mini Computer
More recently, there’s also been a lot of buzz about Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized programmable computer that makers and hackers have been using as the basis for some impressive projects like these from last year’s Raspberry Pi Design Contest. The MAKE store sells a Raspberry Pi Starter Kit that, apart from a USB keyboard, mouse, monitor, and basic soldering skills, has everything you need to create a complete Linux computer for relatively cheap. The kit also includes a copy of the book Getting Started with Raspberry Pi with step-by-step instructions on how to get started.
Of course, I should also mention desktop 3D printers in this context. Unfortunately, though, the cheapest 3D-printer currently available, as far as I know, is the Simple Maker’s Kit by Printrbot. It’ll still set you back a hefty $349, and you’ll have to assemble it yourself (which, if you’re with me this far, may not be a problem for you). But several consumer 3D printers are scheduled to ship sometime in the next year, including the Micro by M3D and the Mod-t by New Matter. Too late for the holidays, but perhaps in the meantime, you can appease the maker on your list with a one-year subscription to MAKE magazine.
Most of my own experimenting and tinkering these days tend to be concentrated around food (most recently, making a cultured cashew cheese that’s now probably well past its use-by date), but I’m also not someone who likes to accrue a lot of specialized kitchen gadgets that will take up valuable cupboard space and only occasionally get used. So I’ve been keeping an eye out on Kickstarter lately for food-related projects that are both aesthetically pleasing and make an economical use of space.
There’s a wide selection of home brewing kits out there, at a variety of price points, but for pure aesthetics, I haven’t seen anything as lovely as those produced by Box Brew Kits and originally funded as part of a Kickstarter campaign. They’re a little pricey, for sure, but they’re nice to look at, available in a selection of woods (including eco-friendly reclaimed wood), and compact enough even for the apartment-dwelling homebrewer.
On the food side of home fermentation, the Kraut Source system makes small-batch fermentation easy by allowing you to replace the bulky traditional crock with a simple wide-mouth mason jar. The Kraut Source lids themselves combine a spring press to ensure your vegetables remain submerged in brine with a one-way seal that allows fermentation gases to escape. Also funded as a Kickstarter project, they’re not quite yet available for purchase, but Kraut Source expects them to be available in time for the holiday season.
The gardener on your list might be feeling a little down around December with Spokane’s average last frost nearly five months away. There are a lot of options for indoor gardening, of course, but one of the more attractive options is Modern Sprout’s windowsill hydroponic planter. If you’re looking for a more affordable option for indoor edibles, also check out their Garden Jars for growing culinary herbs with a minimum of fuss.
And if you need something for the junior foodie in your life, you might want to check out the mushroom farm kit from Back to the Roots. Kids (or adults, for that matter) just have to use the included mister to water the growing medium, and they’ll have gourmet oyster mushrooms in about ten days, growing right out of the box.
More locally, the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy sells gift certificates for its INCA After Dark series of evening classes. You can order those by phone with credit or debit card by calling 509-533-7025 or by stopping by the cashiers office on the SCC campus.
Books on Cooking
Plan on buying books instead? Some recent relevant titles on home fermentation include Fermented Vegetables: Creative Recipes for Fermenting 64 Vegetables & Herbs and Mastering Fermentation: Recipes for Making and Cooking with Fermented Foods. On the homebrewing front, check out Sustainable Homebrewing: An All-Organic Approach to Creating Great Beer or the newly revised 4th edition of the classic The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.
Kids these days, am I right? When I was a kid, the cutting edge of science-related toys was a sad pack of brine shrimp eggs and a disappointing crash course in misleading advertising. But between the burgeoning maker movement and the resurgent interest over the last few years in early STEM education, kids today have some awesome options for educational toys.
Tinkering with paper airplanes as a kid introduced me to how flight control surfaces work, but the PowerUp 3.0 from PowerUp Toys takes paper airplane technology to a whole new level. Combining a propeller and rudder with a Bluetooth-powered control module, the PowerUp 3.0 allows you to control your paper creation remotely by smart phone. And if you’re looking for something more in the stocking-stuffer range, PowerUp also has some cheaper variations without the Bluetooth controller.
Build Your Own Computer
If your little engineers have been particularly good this year, there’s the Kano DIY computer kit, described by Mashable as “a computer kit designed to help people of all ages assemble a computer from scratch, and learn basic coding skills.” Built around the Raspberry Pi single-board computer, the kit includes everything your kid needs except a monitor to create a working computer and start coding games, making music, and more.
Along a similar line, the Makey Makey, developed by members of MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, is basically just a printed circuit board with an Arduino-based microcontroller, a set of alligator clips, and a USB cable, but the kit allows you to turn everyday objects into touchpad controllers for games or other computer programs. To appreciate the possibilities, though, you really have to see the things people have made, like musical instruments from pencil marks, a synthesizer from fruit, or a fencing scoring box with toy swords. If, on the other hand, your kids haven’t been quite that good, MAKE magazine’s online store has a range of more affordable DIY kits suitable for children including kits to assemble their own marshmallow shooter, build a robotic spirograph, make their own chewing gum, or learn to solder their own light-up holiday ornament.
Finally, if you’d rather spend your money locally, Whiz Kids in downtown Spokane has a good selection of science-related toys, including Science Wiz science kits and KidzLabs fun science products. Mobius Science Center also has gift certificates for admission if you know a family that could use a day out. And if you really do want to introduce your little ones to the joy of raising brine shrimp (which, fair warning, look nothing like the cartoons on the box), I happened to notice Sea Monkeys available at Boo Radley’s downtown.
And, just to note, the preceding ideas aren’t necessarily an endorsement, just cool-looking stuff I found around the web, so as always, use a reasonable amount of caution when making any purchase, especially online. Have recommendations of your own? Feel free to leave them in the comments.