We’re always impressed at the wide range of interests and experience of our readers, so we love seeing what totally random gift ideas come through in this category. Ideas from previous years also remain relevant if you’re looking for additional unusual gifts.
Meanwhile, at his night job… Travis Butler wrote, "Steve Jobs’s other company, Pixar, has done a simply superb job with their latest hit, The Incredibles; it’s the first movie in several years that I’ve gone back to see a second time. It’s a good movie about family, it has a cool (and frankly more honest than other recent superhero movies) take on superheroes, has a number of fun riffs/homages for fans of the Bond movies, and is just generally a helluva show. Recommended." And if it’s not still in theaters at Christmas, we’re sure the DVD can’t be far behind.
More Good Christmas Music — Tired of the same old bland holiday songs and arrangements? Andrew Laurence comes to the rescue again this year (be sure to read last year’s list, linked below, for other holiday music recommendations.)
Andrew wrote, "How about another list of toe-tapping, heart-stopping, roof-raising holiday music? My first attempt for this year’s list was to find artists who had run afoul of the law, if only to tweak Adam for pulling last year’s Phil Spector entry. An "I Found The Law" holiday list, if you will. Alas, ’twas not to be. My first rule is that the music must keep your toe a-tapping, and that keeps the list pretty short."
"Christmas Collection: 20th Century Masters" – James Brown
Culled from Brown’s three holiday albums in 1966, 1968, and 1970, these 17 tracks crackle and sizzle with the Godfather’s special brand of funktastic soul. Most cuts are originals, belying other artists who phone in their holiday albums. "Soulful Christmas" is a hypnotizing groove, and "Santa Go Straight to the Ghetto" is a plea for the less fortunate. "Santa Claus, Santa Claus" is a straight blues reading of holiday loneliness, tempered only by a lascivious reading of "Merry Christmas, Baby."
"Boogie Woogie Christmas" – Brian Setzer Orchestra
Polish up the hot rod and grease your hair into a duck tail. Brian Setzer’s big band orchestra (and his crisp lead guitar) lead the way through this collection of holiday classics done right. "Blue Christmas" and "Santa Claus is Back in Town" give us an idea of what Elvis might have sounded like with modern production, while Brian gets playful with Ann-Margret on "Baby It’s Cold Outside". "Nutcracker Suite" is a nod to Duke Ellington, while "(Everyone’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag" has a swagger all its own.
"Billboard Rock ‘N’ Roll Christmas" – Rhino Records
God bless Rhino Records. Rock ‘n’ roll is littered with little jewels of holiday rock bombs, but they’re usually buried amidst horrifically pedestrian dreck. Rhino saves us the trouble of making like a truffle-hunting pig and puts all on one disk: George Thorogood’s "Rock And Roll Christmas," the Kinks’ "Father Christmas," the Beach Boys’ seminal "Little Saint Nick," and, at long last, Dave Edmunds’ authoritative "Run Rudolph Run." Oh, and let’s not forget Cheech & Chong’s, er, slightly confused "Santa Claus and His Old Lady."
"A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector" – Phil Spector
(if only to trust the art and not the artist…) This is the album that all pop stars try to imitate when they record a holiday album. For my money, this album contains the canonical renditions of many holiday tunes. We get the Ronettes performing "Frosty the Snowman," "Sleigh Ride," and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause." The Crystals give us "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but best of all is the thunderous "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Haul the volume knob all the way to the right, baby, ’cause this one goes to eleven.
Kitchen Geek Gear — Nik Friedman acknowledged that some of us appreciate good design in other parts of our lives. "If you have a Mac-head who cooks, or just someone who appreciates a finely made kitchen appliance that’s simple to use and trouble-free (just like a Mac!) take a look at a Kitchen Aid food processor or mixer for them. I’ve had great experiences with the company (and their truly no hassle, you break it/we replace it, warranty) and their products are top notch."
And All Through The House — First the kitchen, now the loo. Aaron Roth succinctly noted, "Here’s something that’s suitable for nearly everyone: The LavNav Lavatory Navigation Toilet Night Light ($20)."
Of course, that endorsement prompted Marilyn Matty to suggest that the LavNav "could be augmented with a purchase of an iToilet, which, while little retro in iDesign, would be useful in theory."
Roomba Does Floors, not Windows — In keeping with the housewares theme, Marilyn also offered this idea. "I don’t have a Roomba robotic vacuum ($150 to $280), but two friends recently got them, and think they work quite well and are happy with them. One friend told me that although it isn’t as fastidious a vacuuming job as if she does it, it’s more than good enough and much preferable to doing all the vacuuming yourself. So I’m most definitely putting this up on my wish list for the holidays. They have good prices at Amazon, J&R, etc., and it’s worth reading the reviews on Amazon."
Watch It on the Big Screen — Christopher Schmidt is clearly pining for something a little larger when it comes to watching TV. He wrote, "This week my family rented a vacation house with a home theater, based on an outstanding projector, which went straight onto my own wish list: the Panasonic PT-AE500U LCD Projector ($2,500). Projected onto an 80-inch Vutec screen in a windowless room (a converted garage), it was plenty bright, even in the bulb-saver setting. (Aside: Bulbs are about $350, and the fan is quieter in the bulb-saver setting.) The overall effect was a lot like projected film. Although the LCD was only 720p, it produced an impression of being a more detailed image than apparent on our 1080i Sony tube-based WEGA at home – presumably because the projected image was big enough for me to see the image detail better (sitting about 10 feet back from both screens).
"And having just lived without our TiVo for the week, I will add that HDTV needs TiVo too: DirecTV HDTV TiVo ($1,000)."
Long Range Photos — Most digital cameras have relatively pitiful zoom lenses, making it difficult to get shots from far away. And sometimes you want to be far away from your subject, leading to Marilyn Matty’s next suggestion. "I’ve been researching a gift for a wildlife photographer and stumbled across this very nifty Bushnell binoculars/camera combo that offers a 30 second instant replay feature ($330). The other combos I found used the lens of the camera, rather than the binoculars, to focus, and at long distances, this could mean a lot of surprises with misframed shots. It’s out of the price range for this particular gift, and I haven’t even seen a real model, but it looks incredibly cool and the feature set is great. If Santa brought one for me, I certainly wouldn’t return it."
Improve (Don’t Destroy) Your Television — It wouldn’t seem like Christmas if Andrew Laurence didn’t recommend TiVo. Unlike previous years, the TiVo options have expanded quite a bit. He wrote, "Are you or your gift recipient tired of slaving to the television networks’ inane and inconvenient schedules? Get a personal television butler, TiVo! TiVo recorders come in two categories: ‘standalone’ recorders that can be used with any television provider in the US, and DirecTV ‘combo receiver’ units. Both can do all the wonderful things discussed in previous TidBITS coverage. DirecTV units have two tuners, and can record two shows at once. TiVo’s low-end standalone recorder can store up to 40 hours of content, and can be had for $80, after rebate, from Amazon. Toshiba and Pioneer sell TiVo recorders that are also DVD recorders; these units can save shows to recordable DVD media. Standalone recorders come with the TiVo Basic service, essentially an intelligent VCR. Upgrading to the TiVo Plus service gets the Season Pass, Wishlist, Home Media Option, and Suggestions features. TiVo Plus service costs $13 per month ($7 per month for each additional recorder in the household) or $300 for the lifetime of the recorder. TiVo Plus gift certificates are also available."
If you need more space in your TiVo, look to WeaKnees.com for upgrades, which we wrote about in "Upgrading the TiVo" in TidBITS-644.
The only problem with TiVo is that you’re still limited to the crud that passes for entertainment on the television stations. If you just can’t stand the shows any more (or paying high monthly rates for shows you don’t want to watch), you could always do what Adam and Tonya have just done and cancel your cable service. After clearing out the 100+ hours of backlogged shows on their TiVo, they plan to follow Diane Ross’s suggestion. She wrote, "A gift subscription to Netflix would be a sure winner. Even if the recipient already has a Netflix subscription, they can redeem it for service. Netflix recently reduced their rates, and a one month gift subscription costs $18." (We covered Netflix in "Worthy Web Sites: Get Your Kicks with Netflix" in TidBITS-604.)
Games with Atoms, Not Bits — Did you know that multi-player games exist where you don’t have to fuss with network settings or make sure everyone has a fast-enough Mac? Rick Holzgrafe, when he’s not programming Solitaire Till Dawn, has some suggestions. He wrote, "I almost submitted these suggestions in the game category, but these are board games – no computer required! You may not find these at Toys-R-Us, but your town probably has a store or two dedicated to games, and that’s where you’ll find these gems. They are also widely available on-line: try Amazon, or just type the game’s name into Google.
"These are examples of the relatively new ‘German-style’ board game. They hit a certain sweet spot in gaming: there is strategy, but they aren’t intense skull-crackers like Chess or Go; they are social, but they are not party games that require the players to behave in silly ways; and they are not dumbed-down for children and are immensely enjoyable by teens and adults. The boards, pieces, and ‘bits’ are well-made and often feature beautiful artwork.
"These make great family games if your kids are in middle school or higher. The rules may seem overly complex at first, but once you’ve played a game or two, they make sense and the games flow along very easily. At $30 or $40 apiece, the prices may strike you as a bit high, but compare them to the price of taking a family of four to the movies, and suddenly they seem downright cheap. A movie only lasts a couple of hours, but these games have real staying power! Here are some of our family favorites:
The Settlers of Catan: 3 or 4 players compete to build prosperous colonies on an island. Compete for resources and room in which to build roads, settlements, and cities. The board is assembled from shuffled tiles, giving you a new geography every time you play. This is the classic "gateway game" that is responsible for addicting thousands of new players to the German-style games.
Puerto Rico: Perhaps the most popular board game of the last 10 years! A bit complex, but very rewarding. Again you are colonizing, but the game mechanics are different from Settlers of Catan. In each player’s turn, the player chooses a particular function (building, producing goods, shipping products, etc.) and all players get to perform that function even though it is not their turn. The player who chose the function gets an advantage over the others, and by choosing appropriately can further his own game and impede his opponents. Many choices and many paths to victory give this game enduring appeal.
El Grande: Compete against your opponents to gain political influence in medieval Spain! Seize opportunities to place your caballeros in positions of power, and to scatter and diffuse your opponents. Like most of the German-style games, this is not a war game: you are maneuvering for position, not engaging in combat. El Grande has been a model for many subsequent games.
Carcassonne: A game with very simple rules: draw a tile at random, and add it to a growing mosaic of a medieval European countryside. Win points by claiming and completing cities, roads, monasteries, and farmland as they appear. This game is good for any number of players from two (it makes a great head-to-head game) to five. Once you’ve mastered the basic game, expansion sets are available that add new things to build and new ways to score.
"And finally, a great resource for anyone who enjoys board and table games: BoardGameGeek.com. This incredible site has over 1,500 table games listed, described, categorized, rated, reviewed, photographed, and discussed! Click Games by Rating to see the hottest games in the opinion of the thousands of members. You must be a member to participate in ratings and discussions, but membership is free and you can browse all you like without being a member."