TidBITS certainly focuses on the world of the Macintosh, but we're always impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge that our readers display in other fields, so it comes as no surprise that many people can't resist making gift suggestions that have absolutely nothing to do with the Mac or even with computers. Ideas from previous years remain relevant if you're looking for additional unusual gifts.
Wireless Sound -- Geoff Bronner said, "My recommendation is the gift I gave myself last year. A Sony SPIAR Wireless Speaker System (SPIAR stands for "Sound Playing In Any Room"). Why is this a good item for the Mac enthusiast? Because it just works and looks cool while doing it. The system has two parts, a transmitter and a speaker, each with an AC adapter, but the speaker also has a built-in rechargeable battery which enables you to move it anywhere you like for three to four hours. The transmitter is not very large and accepts input from RCA connectors or a stereo headphone plug. We have it connected to our home theater system and sitting on top of the stereo cabinet. The speaker is a single unit with a plastic reflector that glows with a blue light to match the Sony TiVo. But this single unit puts out stereo sound that will fill a room. We use it to bring music into different parts of the house or out onto our patio. It also solves the problem of having two people watching the same TV from different parts of the house: instead of turning the volume way up on the TV, you can use the SPIAR speaker to have a comfortable sound level everywhere.
"If that isn't enough, you can buy additional speaker units that use the same transmitter. Sony also sells wireless headphones that are compatible with these speakers. The system uses the 900 MHz range, so it does not conflict with our active 802.11b wireless network. It generally gets along with the 900 MHz phones used in the house and can change channels if there is interference. Sony is not the cheapest brand on the market - the speaker and transmitter will cost you $180 list - but you get what you pay for. This product is better than anything else I could find in this price range... just like my Mac."
Good Christmas Music -- So what are you going to play on your wireless speaker system? Some of us were ecstatic to read Andrew Laurence's next suggestion. Andrew wrote, "How about non-sucking, non-syrupy, non-schlock holiday music? Each year we're assaulted in shops and malls with the most horrific schmaltzy dreck, and most folks don't know that there exists holiday music with pep, verve, and a more than a little bit of fun. Here's a list of favorites that I return to year after year."
"Elvis' Christmas Album" - Elvis Presley
Originally issued in 1957, this album remains a classic. Side One contains the pop tracks, from his famous renditions of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and "Blue Christmas" to the seminal rock tune "Santa Claus is Back in Town." Side Two is sacred material, the first hint we had that, aside from being the King of Rock 'n Roll, Elvis was an amazing singer. It includes a beautiful "Silent Night" and an ethereal "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley."
"Original Soul Christmas" - Various Artists
This album came out when the boys in the band dressed like gentlemen and the women were dressed to kill. Clarence Carter sets the mood with "Back Door Santa." Along the way we get Otis Redding on "White Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby," King Curtis's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" and Joe Tex's "I'll Make Every Day Christmas (For My Woman)." The CD reissue adds a few extra tracks, including Ray Charles's "Christmas Time."
"Hipster's Holiday: Vocal Jazz & R&B Classics" - Various Artists
Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," a rather naughty rendition of waiting for Santa, is worth the entrance fee alone. We also get Oscar McLollie's "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus," Louis Armstrong's "Zat You, Santa Claus," and Big John Greer's hysterical "We Wanna See Santa Do the Mambo." Pearl Bailey offers a pragmatic holiday wish, "Five Pound Box of Money."
"In The Christmas Spirit" - Booker T. & the MG's
You know every cut on this record. You've heard each one a thousand times but didn't know it. When you're in a store, realize that the instrumental piece you're hearing is a rock 'n roll holiday arrangement and think, "Hey, that's actually good!", you're listening to this album. Booker T's organ sizzles across each cut. It's so good that three of the cuts are also on the aforementioned "Original Soul Christmas." Ignore the duplication and revel in the artistry of master musicians.
John Haffner, Paul Brians, and LuKreme also jumped in with their recommendations.
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" - Vince Guaraldi Trio
John wrote: "I bought this album at Starbucks a couple years back and it remains one of my favorite Christmas albums thanks to its cool, laid-back music for the season. It also takes some of us back to childhood years."
"Go Tell It on the Mountain" - Blind Boys of Alabama
Paul noted: "This new album by the classic gospel group has hard-driving excitement, unusual arrangements, and several guest stars, including Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, George Clinton, and Chrissie Hynde. It's quickly become one of my favorites among my 200+ Christmas albums. I bought my copy at Starbucks." (Who knew Starbucks was the place for hip Christmas music?)
"And the Angels Sing..." - Various Artists
LuKreme said, "My favorite holiday recording is produced by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, perhaps as a fund-raiser. Nevertheless, it has 22 tracks of classic Christmas carols, and no 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' or 'Jingle Bell Rock' so it gets major bonus points from me."
Yes, Mother -- Marilyn Matty has a different answer of what to listen to that you probably wouldn't have expected. "Amy Borkowsky, a former advertising copywriter turned stand-up comic, recently released a followup CD to her successful 'Amy's Answering Machine' CD and book. If you haven't already heard, or own, the originals, I highly recommend both. They are compilations of actual messages left on her answering machine by her overprotective mother, and they proved to be the most popular elements of her comedy routines.
"I couldn't imagine there could be any better concern about computer ownership conundrums than this first message from Amy's mother... at least until I heard the second one:
"'You know, it just occurred to me... what do you need a laptop computer for? What if you get all farmisht and leave the computer on a table at a diner? That's like leaving a three thousand dollar tip for an egg on a roll.'
"'Amila, I'm having second thoughts about that little palm-size computer that you bought. You could swallow it and, God forbid, choke. I just read an article about a fellow who lost a tiny cell phone and when he dialed his own number to try and locate it, he heard a ringing sound coming from his dog.'
"Underlying the New York accent is a loving, concerned and devoted heart that anyone's child can relate to, which make the CD and book wonderful gifts and party entertainment. Even if you're not a single, 35+, New York City female, you're bound to get a big kick out of Amy's mother's advice."
Internet Radio Subscriptions -- Amy Borkowsky's CDs won't last forever, but Tomoharu Nishino's next suggestion will provide a year of listening pleasure. "I recommend a one year subscription to 'Wait, wait, don't tell me...' on Audible.com. I love that show on NPR, but am never near a radio when it's on. I could listen to it from their Web site, but that ties me to a computer. The Audible.com subscription isn't exactly cheap at $45 for 12 months ($10 for 1 month), but it lets me easily download the shows to my iPod and take it with me. Of course, depending on the tastes of the recipient, you might think about other shows, too. 'Car Talk' comes readily to mind."
Of course, for a different approach that has only one-time costs, check out the 2003 Miscellaneous Gift Ideas article earlier in this issue for devices that let you record radio - Internet or AM/FM - to your Mac.
See America By Book -- Adam here. I'll admit that as much as I like looking at pictures, big coffee table photo books seldom hold my interest for long. That hasn't been true of Rick Smolan and David Elliot Cohen's new book, America 24/7, which brings together more than 1,200 photographs taken over a single week by both professional and amateur photographers (see "America 24/7 Digital Photo Project" in TidBITS-679 for the initial announcement). 25,000 people submitted more than one million photos, and this book represents the cream of the crop. The variety is what held my attention, I think, and I find myself picking this book up time and time again and flipping through a few more pages, reading the captions and imagining what the lives of the people pictured must be like. The book lists for $50, but it's on sale at Amazon for 40 percent off right now, bringing the price down to $30, which is more than reasonable for 300 full-color oversize pages.
The Ultimate Travel Mug -- This year, Andrew Laurence addressed a problem that many of us may not have even realized we had: the need for a high-quality traveler coffee mug. "A confession. I have an irrational obsession with traveler/thermos coffee mugs. I'm constantly in search of the perfect mug. The lid should seal and be reasonably leak/spill-proof - no leaks around the edges when I corner in the Miata, thank you very much. If I drop the cup because the baby just lunged out of my arms, I'd like to be reasonably sure that the lid won't explode on impact and spill my precious coffee all over the landscape.
"For years I've imagined a good thermos mug with a dead-man's trigger - the lid's natural state is closed, and you have to squeeze a trigger to drink of the goodness. For a while I thought I had it with the Traveler mug featuring the Closer lid. However, the lid easily breaks upon disassembly for cleaning. And you can't just buy one in a store - it seems to be available only as logo-ware in bulk.
"I've been eyeing the Thermos/Nissan tumblers for years, after seeing them for sale in places like Brookstone, Sharper Image, and various coffee houses. At upwards of $30 each, however, I never quite made the leap. Then last night my wife found a twin-pack of their JMH402 mug at Costco, for only $20! For my money, it's the perfect travel tumbler. It holds a healthy 14 ounces of elixir, with a tight screw-on lid. The lid sports a lever-action dead-man's trigger, and is very spill-resistant. Beautiful stainless steel on the inside and outside; Thermos claims that it'll keep hot liquids hot for three hours, and cold liquids cold for six hours. Mmmm, coffee..."
The Right Tools for Any Job -- Although it's important to have the right tools for the job at hand, Tomoharu Nishino also noted that sometimes it's good to have tools for whatever the job may turn out to be. "I always carry two things in my briefcase: a Leatherman Juice XE6 multi-tool and a pocket-sized Maglite flashlight. I must confess that I am a multi-tool addict and have tried quite a few (not to mention a few Swiss Army knives), and the Leatherman strikes the right balance between size, variety of tools, safety, and usability. Both the Leatherman and Maglite are incredibly useful things to just have around; you'd be surprised how many dark or dimly lit corners there are in an average office building. I've even performed an emergency hard disk upgrade on a Power Mac G4 with the Leatherman while peering into it with the Maglite flashlight held in my mouth (not that I am recommending this, mind you - the computer was secured under a desk with an anti-theft device). Now if we can only convince Leatherman to add a couple of Torx screwdrivers."
Johann Beda qualified this suggestion, "LED flashlights are the way to go these days. They have great light and amazing lifetimes for batteries and the LEDs. For lots of fun (albeit not super bright light) getting a clear magnetic induction LED flashlight would make my day. You shake the cylinder and a magnet bounces back and forth in the shaft, past some coils which charge a capacitor, and when you flip the switch the capacitor powers the flashlight for a few minutes. There are also crank powered LED flashlights available that are useful but not as nifty."
Curtis Wilcox agreed, but cautioned, "I have one of these magnetic induction LED flashlights in my car. The light is indeed rather weak (not the fault of the LED) but its main appeal is that there are no batteries to replace or have die on you when you finally need to use it. It is an electromagnet, so you wouldn't want to carry it in your pocket with your wallet."
Where Am I? John Slavin asked, presumably rhetorically, "What about a GPS device? Route 66 has released Route USA 2004 for Mac OS X, which gives us mapping and route planning software. The next thing is a GPS to go with it. Of course, there are options for connecting full-blown GPS receivers, but I am intrigued by this MacProf article which suggested that the PC card-based GPSes from Haicom will work with Route USA 2004. Haicom also makes some nifty little hybrid models."
We can second this recommendation. During a recent trip to Boston, where the extensive highway system was designed by cows and clearly labelled in Braille, a Garmin eTrex Legend GPS filled with local maps proved invaluable in answering the basic questions of "Where the heck are we?" and "Where on this map do we want to be?" (The answers were, respectively, "where the little arrow is pointing," and "enjoying dinner with Andy Ihnatko and Rich 'Mr. BBEdit' Siegel at Zaftigs in Brookline.") We weren't even late, though that was more a function of having left an extra 45 minutes to be lost.
Act Local, Think Global -- Lastly, although suggestions of donations to specific charities didn't appear from readers this year, perhaps in part due to the weak economy through 2003, we encourage you to think of others as well. Local state, county, and city budgets are being slashed around the United States as government funds are redirected elsewhere, and worthy programs are suffering from the effects. So this year, why not find a local organization that could use your donation of time, goods, or money to make your community a better place to live for everyone?
And if you're of the opinion that we're all in this together and you want to extend your efforts to those in other countries that have even more significant challenges, we recommend Heifer International, a group that links your donations directly to the gift of farm animals to needy third-world families. The animals may provide income, food, and offspring, and Heifer International asks that recipients pass on one of the their animal's offspring to another needy family. Besides, how else could you give someone a water buffalo?