Welcome to Scientific Computing‘s annual holiday gift guide. This year, we’ve broken it into two sections. In this section, we’ve focused on identifying gifts suitable for the true Geeks out there. However, I believe everyone has a little geek in them, it just needs to be properly nurtured for it to catch fire. So, if you have a non-geek on your list that you think a particular gift will be suitable for, by all means get it. Many people avoid the technical because they are afraid of it. There is nothing quite like a ‘toy’ to seduce them into learning more about the associated science and technology.
We’ll start this section off with an item that any road warriors on your list might find particularly useful. This is the Satechi Smart Travel Router / Travel Adapter with USB Port (Satechi Smart Travel Router / Travel Adapter, Satechi, $49.99). Yes, if you were just looking for an international adapter for someone on your list, this is a bit on the expensive side, but that is only one part of what this device can do. Its selectable outlet configuration allows it to be used in over 150 countries. It includes both a USB charging port that can supply up to 2.1A, as well as an AC socket into which you can plug a second charger. Most importantly though, it can function as a multimode network router, operating as a router, a repeater, an access point, or client. The WAN/LAN port auto-switches between 10 and 100 Mbps. It supports the IEEE 02.11n/g/b Wi-Fi standards, so you can connect just about any device to it. NOTE that the charger adapter function ONLY converts the power prong configuration and does not alter the output voltage of the circuit it is plugged into. If you need to alter the voltage from the power system, you will need a separate electrical converter.
Another device your road warriors might find useful, though perhaps not as useful as a family taking a long road trip cross country would, is the MiniStation Air from Buffalo Americas. (MiniStation Air, HDW-PD1.0U3, Buffalo Americas, Inc., $199.99). Weighing just 265 g, the MiniStation Air is a 1 TB battery-powered Wireless Hard Drive. Its internal 3020 mAh battery can power the drive for up to 12 hours. It can also serve as a smartphone charger, for those times the recipient is caught away from an outlet.
You can use the MiniStaton Air as a standard external hard drive via its integrated USB 3.0 port. This makes it very easy to load media onto the drive. However, this drive is really optimized to stream music and video through its integrated Wi-Fi hotspot. Compliant with the IEEE802.11/n/g/b standards, it supports Up to 8 connections, and up to 3 HD streams simultaneously. Since it supports the WPA2-PSK (AES, TKIP), WPA-PSK (AES, TKIP), 128/64Bit WEP security standards, it can stream all of this securely. Streaming is normally handled through its integrated DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) server, which allows you to stream the data to any DLNA-ready device. Load it up with the family’s favorite TV shows or movies, and you can keep the kids (no matter how old they are) occupied, so the driver is not continually having to answer whether they are there yet.
While this device is optimized for media streaming, it can also be used for standard file transfers over the Wi-Fi link. This is done using the SMB protocol, so you need to have the appropriate app, of which there are many, such as AndSMB, loaded on your smartphone or laptop. The main requirement is to configure your SMB program with the Hostname of the MiniStation, which you can obtain either through the smartphone app or the drive’s Web interface, and set it to connect anonymously.
One caveat to keep in mind is that you can not simultaneously use the drives USB 3.0 and Wi-Fi interfaces. Plugging the MiniStation Air into a USB port automatically shuts down the Wi-Fi interface. I should also point out that it is slightly larger than most USB hard drives, with dimensions of 84x145x18 mm, so it may not fit in all of the available hard drive cases.
If you have a security conscious recipient on your list, check out the Skydigital EZSAVE Lockdown USB 3.0 2.5″ HDD Enclosure from Brando (EZSAVE Lockdown, Product Code: UHDCL006400, Brando, $87.00). Yes, this is a hard drive enclosure, not a hard drive. The user can either insert an existing 2.5” hard disk or purchase one separately. While this unit might sound rather expensive for ‘just’ a hard drive enclosure, it is really much more than that. Yes, one feature is that it supports USB 3.0 file transfers, but that is not its most impressive feature. The EZSAVE Lockdown hardware can encrypt the drives inserted into it via a 32 bit ARM-based controller via the AES (Advance Encryption Standard) 256 bit algorithm. Since this hardware encryption is performed on the drive, it is not susceptible to the software key being captured by a key logger. Another important plus to this is, since you don’t have to run any software on the host machine, this drive is compatible with any device that supports USB host mode.
The case is a sleek combination of plastic and stainless steel. Its 4- to 8-digit PIN is entered via the capacitance touch panel on the front of the device. An OLED display above the keypad assists in password entry, menu navigation and the display of drive status information.
Do read through the manual carefully before inserting a drive into this enclosure to avoid any potential data loss. Any 2.5” hard disk drives compatible with SATA I/II/III, having a thickness of 9.5mm and under, can be used with this enclosure. A feature that significantly adds to the practicality of this drive is that it can remember and recognize up to 50 distinct hard drives, each of which is encrypted with a different key. Unlike most encrypted drives, you are not restricted to just a single instance of the drive.
Of course, not all drives need to have an enclosure to be useful, you simply need a way to access them. If someone on your list is continually swapping out hard drives, whether to back them up or simply to access them, consider gifting them with a Dual Hard Drive Docking Station USB 3.0 from Cirago (Dual Hard Drive Docking Station USB 3.0, Model No.: CDD3000, Cirago, $79.99). The bays in this docking station support both 2.5” and 3.5” hard drives, up to a capacity of 3 TB, compliant with the SATA 2 standard. Both hard drives can be read or written to simultaneously over the USB 3.0 interface. While this bay supports two drives, you do not have to install two drives to be able to access a drive, nor do both drives have to be the same dimensions (i.e. you can insert both a 3.5” and a 2.5” drive). However, a very interesting feature of this bay is that, if you wish to clone a drive, you can insert both a source and target drive and the bay will clone it with the touch of a single button, even if it isn’t connected to a PC at the time. I’ve known a lot of support technicians that would probably have killed for that feature. It also includes an LED bar graph display to track the progress of the cloning. Software for MS Windows is included to allow cloning of drives over the USB cable.
If the person on your list has no need to clone drives, the Cirago USB 3.0 Hard Drive Docking Station with 3 Port USB 3.0 Hub and One Touch Backup (Hard Drive Docking Station with 3 Port USB 3.0 Hub, Model Number: CDD3003, Cirago, $59.99) might be an even better gift for them, now that USB 3.0 devices are becoming more common. It supports all 2.5” and 3.5” hard drives compliant with the SATA I/II/III standards. If you load the associated software CD onto the host computer, you can clone its hard drive with the touch of a button. This software supports Windows 8, 7, Vista, XP and Mac OS 9.x or later.
What might be the most useful feature of this docking station is that it also includes three USB 3.0 ports on the front of the unit, so it can serve as a hub, as well as a docking station. The only quirky thing that I’ve observed with this device is with the orientation of the USB ports. The ports are easily accessible, but the USB standard specifies that the ports should be orientated so that the USB logo on the cables plugged into the ports should be facing up. In this case, they have been rotated 180° so that the cable connectors are upside down and the logo is not visible. I’m sure you’ll agree that this miniscule violation of the standard doesn’t detract from the effectiveness and appeal of this device at all. While it might occasionally irritate someone who knows the standard and attempts to insert a device properly, I suspect that most users wouldn’t even be aware that this orientation was part of the standard!
If the only thing your recipient needs is a USB 3.0 hub, then check out the USB 3.0 SuperSpeed 6 Port Hub — With Additional 2 Charging Ports (2A each), also from Cirago (Doesn’t Cirago have exotic names for their devices? On the other hand, at least you don’t need to guess what a device does!) (USB 3.0 6 Port Hub + 2 Charging Ports, Model No.: USH3162, Cirago, $69.99) This hub provides 6 USB 3.0 data ports, indicated by the blue sockets. In addition, it includes 2 dedicated charging ports, indicated by the red sockets. The charging ports are for device charging only. However, to compensate for them having no data connection, the charging ports can supply 2 Amps of current, per port. The 12 V, 4 A, power supply that comes with the unit provides maximum performance by eliminating the current drain on the host machine. All eight ports on the hub can be active simultaneously, use of the charging ports does not disable the data ports or vice versa. A USB 3.0 cable is included with this hub to connect it back to the host machine.
Of course, with all of this migration to USB 3.0, isn’t there someone on your list who needs to upgrade their memory card reader? It seems a shame to waste all of that time with a slow reader when they have a faster interface available. If there is, consider the Brando Workshop USB 3.0 All-in-One SuperSpeed Card Reader (USB 3.0 All-in-One SuperSpeed Card Reader, Product Code: UCARD012300, Brando Workshop, $23.00). This incarnation of the venerable multifunction card reader ups the ante to a USB 3.0 interface with data transfer rates peaking at 93.33MB/s (read) and 67.23MB/s (write). It is a square package ~6.5 cm on a side and ~1.3 cm thick, weighing ~58 g, with an integrated 12 cm cable for connecting to a host machine. Power and memory card access is indicated by a multicolor LED catercorner to this cable. It includes eight ports, supporting around 34 card types, depending on how you count them. The card types and maximum memory size supported are:
- SD (2GB) / SD HIGH SPEED (2GB) / SD PRO HIHG SPEED (2GB) / SD Class 2 (2GB) / SD Class 4 (2GB) / SD Class 6 (2GB)
- SD(XC) / SD(HC) Class 2 (32GB) / SD(HC) Class 4 (32GB) / SD(HC) Class 6 (32GB) / SD(HC) Class 10 (32GB)
- micro SD T-Flash (2GB)
- micro SD Class 2 (16GB) / micro SD Class 4 (16GB) / micro SD Class 6 (16GB)
- MMC (2GB)
- MMC 4.0, 4.1, 4.2 (4GB) / MMC Plus 4.0, 4.1, 4.2 (4GB)
- RS-MMC (2GB) / RS-MMC 4.0 (2GB) / MMC mobile (2GB) / MMC micro (2GB)
- MS XC / MS PRO (4GB) / MS PRO HIHG SPEED (2GB) / MS PRO Duo (8GB) / MS PRO Duo HIGH SPEED (2GB) / MS PRO Duo Mark 2 (16GB) / MS PRO HG Duo (8GB) / MS PRO HG Duo HX (8GB) / PSP PRO Duo (4GB)
- M2 (4GB)
- xD / xD 1.21
I found the most interesting thing about this card reader to be that it had two slots for micro SD/(HC) cards and two slots for SD/SD(HC)/SDXC/MMC cards. This is very useful in that it allows one to clone these cards without first having to copy the contents onto their hard drive. Depending on exactly what they are trying to do, it might significantly reduce the amount of flipping cards back and forth that your recipient might otherwise need to do. Fortunately, due to several ports looking very similar, there are legends on the back of the unit to indicate which cards a particular slot supports. This device is available with either a white or black case
I suspect that any true Geek would be very protective of their equipment, well, unless they are deliberately modifying it themselves. One vendor that frequently comes to mind when discussing protective cases is Case Logic, as they seem to have multiple cases to cover just about any need.
Does one of your giftees have a portable USB drive that they need to carry around, but are concerned about it just banging all over the place? Consider Case Logic’s Compact Portable Hard Drive Case (Compact Portable Hard Drive Case, PHDC-1-BLACK, Case Logic, $19.99). This case, which features a durable, hard-shell exterior to protect the recipient’s precious drives, is manufactured using molded EVA foam. Its exterior dimensions are 4.5 x 1.8 x 6.2 in, and it can hold devices up to 3.5 x 1.2 x 5.5 in. This case also features an interior elastic strap to secure the hard drive, so it won’t be bouncing around in its case during transport.
Now, these cases are warranted for 25 years, which means that your targeted recipient had better be someone good at re-purposing gifts, as I don’t know of any piece of electronic equipment that they might still be using in 25 years! In the event that your giftee doesn’t have a standard device, such as Buffalo’s MiniStation Air, Case Logic does have a series of similar cases with slightly different dimensions. Make sure that you check both the devices and the cases dimensions, assuming that it is a certain size because of the name may lead you to ignore a case that would be the perfect fit.
Perhaps you have a slot for someone who owns a MacBook or similarly sized laptop. Consider Case Logic’s 13 & 15″ MacBook Pro®/13-14″ Laptop Attaché (13&15″ MacBook Pro/13-14″ Laptop Attaché, (LHA-114-BLACK, Case Logic, $49.99). It is constructed from a hard shell of EVA foam weighing only 2.02 lb and contains a security strap to restrain devices while on-the-go. While the molded indents on the outside of the case have a rather sleek look to it, it’s the inside features that actually add to this case’s worth. What from the outside appear to be just indents, on the inside become an elevated workspace with integrated air channels to prevent overheating, so that your recipient’s devices can be used while in the case.
The case itself measures 16 x 3 x 12 in, allowing it to contain devices ranging in size up to 9.4 x 0.8 x 13.7 in. These sizes generally correspond to screen sizes of 13-13.3″ to 14-14.1″. The inside of the case is equipped with a divider panel featuring organizational pockets and pen loops. These pockets allow you to store files or even a tablet computer with your laptop.
Here is an interesting gift for anyone who, dare I say it, still has to research items off-line. It is a portable flatbed scanner called Flip-Pal. The particular unit I reviewed is called the Flip-Pal mobile scanner PLUS (Flip-Pal, Couragent, Inc., $149.99). The scanner supports two resolutions: 300 x 300 dpi and 600 x 600 dpi, with a scan area of 4” x 6”. 300 dpi scans take ~6 seconds and 600 dpi scans take ~11 seconds. However, the scanner also includes software to stitch individual scans together so that you can scan larger images. Unlike most portable scanners, this one includes a small color LCD (1.7”) for accessing system menus and displaying thumbnails of the scans. Resulting scans are stored on a standard SD/SDHC card. A 4GB card comes with the unit, and the scanner has been tested successfully with cards up to 32 GB. Using the 4 GB card supplied, it can store ~2,200 scans at 300 dpi or ~1,600 scans at 600 dpi. This card is also preloaded with all of the scanners image processing software, for both Windows and Macs. In addition, this unit comes with a SD card to USB adapter to allow systems without a SD card reader to access the images.
Physically the Flip-Pal measures 10.25 x 6.5 x 1.25 in. and weighs 1 lb. 4.5 oz. (580 gm) without batteries. It is powered by 4 AA alkaline batteries, which are included. However, it is also compatible with photo lithium and NiMH rechargeable batteries. The scanner is rated for ~150 scans per set of alkaline batteries and up to ~500 scans per set of NiMH rechargeable batteries. The ‘flip’ in its name comes from the fact that you can remove the lid from the scanner and flip the scanner over to scan items too large to fit on the scanner platform. This is a particularly useful feature when you need to scan books or other bound volumes. Normally, when you lay such an item flat, the sides toward the spine tend to curve in, so that you can’t get a good scan, or photo for that matter. However, if you brace the bound document open with the covers at a 45° angle, the pages will be lying relatively flat and you can place the scanner face down on the pages to copy them. The only real caveats to this are that
1. you allow sufficient overlap of scans for the stitching software to be able to align the various scans
2. you limit the amount of ambient light hitting the page through the clear alignment panel, on the bottom of the scanner, so that it doesn’t degrade the scan.
While this unit does not come with one, it does support wireless Eye-Fi SD cards. Other configurations are available, ranging in price from $184.97 to $288.02, though these prices might fluctuate depending on where the unit is bought and what sales are being run. These alternate configurations all include a carrying case of some type and an assortment of various accessories.
As mentioned above, some versions of the Flip Pal come with an included case to protect the scanner. The particular model I received for review did not. While I’m sure this scanner is more rugged than it appears, it is so light weight that I felt paranoid just carrying it around. As such, I’d strongly recommend purchasing a case to transport it. You can order a case from the vendor, but as I’ve only seen it in photographs, I cannot tell you how protective it would be. However, I did discover that Case Logic’siPad / 9-10″ Tablet Attaché (iPad / 9-10″ Tablet Attaché, QTA-110-RED, Case Logic, $29.99 ) fit it perfectly, and I would highly recommend this case to anyone who has or might be receiving a Flip Pal. This case is available in black and purple, as well as the red shown here. In addition to the adjustable carrying strap, the case contains an internal divider with two mesh pockets for carrying accessories. It also includes a microfiber cloth for cleaning screens and scan windows.
If you stop and do a little free association, what tends to come to mind when you think of a ‘geek’. Go ahead, admit it, no matter what the field, there is a very good chance that Star Trek came to mind. Now, I don’t know why you acknowledge that as if it were a stigma, it’s not as if you answered Lost in Space. Anyway, I’m sure that there are many on your list who, after an exhausting day lugging hardware around or dealing with an intransigent computer, just want to sit down and take it easy for a while. What better way to do this than with some aged Saurian Brandy or Romulan Ale served in a personal container from a Star Trek U.S.S. Enterprise Glassware Set (Star Trek U.S.S. Enterprise Glassware Set, ThinkGeek, $29.99) distributed by ThinkGeek? Each set consists of four 7 oz. glasses with the command insignia from the original Star Trek series (TOS) etched into them, along with ‘U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701’. According to ThinkGeek, these glasses are Not Dishwasher or Microwave safe but are replicator safe.
Now, just because someone is a Geek, doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate grilling a good steak. However, it is demeaning to expect them to use a pair of plain barbecue tong;, that is so mundane! Thus, for the steak-loving Geeks on your list, I suggest supplying them with a pair of Star Wars Light Saber BBQ Tongs (Star Wars Light Saber BBQ Tongs, ThinkGeek, $34.99).
This pair is not only modeled on Darth Vader’s light saber, but a press of a side button also provides classic light saber sound effects (powered by 2 AAA batteries, included). These tongs are almost two feet long and include a heat-resistant plastic handle. For those times that your recipient is not attacking the grill, these tongs can be stored in its transparent red cover, which forms the blade of the light saber. Truly, this is a grilling implement for a more civilized age
Have any budding criminologists on your list? Geologists? Auto mechanics? Consider the INOVA X5 Titanium Anodized Ultraviolet LED Flashlight from ThinkGeek (INOVA X5 Titanium Anodized Ultraviolet LED Flashlight, ThinkGeek, $39.99). Powered by two CR123A Lithium batteries, the five high power ultraviolet LEDs in this flashlight put out an intense beam of ultraviolet light with a wavelength band of 365-400 nanometers. These components are housed in a strong protective case made from machined aluminum with an anodized titanium coating. (ThinkGeek states that the X5 is crush proof, but you needn’t take that as a challenge.)
The INOVA X5 has a water resistant construction, including O-ring seals, meeting the ANSI IPX4 Standard. This standard requires the device to survive having water splashed on it from all angles, but doesn’t require it to survive immersion. A three-position end cap switch is used to control this light with settings of: momentary On, constant On/Off, and Lockout mode. This version of the X5 includes an additional control feature. Unlike previous models, this one supports dual intensities. In the momentary On mode, the system will alternate between the high intensity and low intensity modes with each press of the momentary contact switch on the end of the end cap. In the constant On mode, the beam intensity will switch between modes every time you rotate the end cap switch to turn it on. Essentially, switching the X5 to constant On is equivalent to pressing the momentary contact switch in the momentary On mode. While the X5 is in the constant On mode, pressing the momentary contact switch has no effect in terms of switching between high and low intensity. I have encountered differences in the specifications online, but most indicate that the X5 has a run time of up to 10 hours per pair of batteries. This will, of course, be dependent on the power mode you are using.
Why would anyone want to receive this? Well, because it is both fun and useful, allowing them to observe things not visible with the naked eye. Uses range from playing CIS or exploring for fluorescent minerals, to ‘practical’ things, such as detecting counterfeit currency and IDs, curing adhesives, checking for AC and other leaks in their car. In effect, its uses are limited only by its recipient’s imagination.
One last practical matter. The X5 is not a toy, in the usual sense, it is a very practical tool. It’s UV output is much greater than the little black light the kids might get as a promotion at your local burger joint. ThinkGeek clearly states that this device is not for use by children, whether physically or mentally. Make sure your recipient treats this device responsibly. To be specific, do not aim UV lights at your face or eyes. As long as the X5 is treated responsibly, it is perfectly safe and can be loads of fun; so, see that they do!
Many of today’s scientists and engineers were first lured into the field by the seductive influence of building a fully functioning electronic device from a kit. These days, most of the old electronic kit manufacturers are gone, but that has only left room for new ones to pop up with even niftier kits. The following are a variety of kits and components available from SparkFun Electronics.
The first item to spotlight is their SparkFun Inventors’s Kit for IOIO (SIKIO) (SparkFun Inventors’s Kit for IOIO, KIT-11607, SparkFun Electronics, $89.95). The SIKIO includes seven projects to control external hardware components via an Android application, employing the IOIO-OTG (pronounced “yo-yo-O-T-G”). The goal of this kit is to help the recipient learn how to write Android applications that can interact with the external world. To help the user along, this kit includes the full-color SIKIO Guidebook, which provides detailed instructions as to how to configure the circuit components. No soldering is required with this kit, as all connections are made through a breadboard. However, it does target people at an intermediate programming level, which translates to someone who knows how to code, even it if is in a different language. They welcome beginners, but warn up front that without a familiarity with the basics of programming, the projects might be quite difficult. A list of all of the included components is available on the SparkFun Electronics Web site, as are links to download all of the guides and other documentation that comes with this kit. Unless you know that someone really wants this kit, I recommend checking out the documentation and online product videos to help determine whether this kit is at the appropriate level for the person for whom you are trying to locate a gift.
The Tiny AVR Programmer (Tiny AVR Programmer, PGM-11801, SparkFun Electronics, $19.95) is a board designed by David Mellis of the MIT Media Lab to simplify programming of the ATtiny45 andATtiny85 MicroController Units (MCU1) using the Arduino integrated development environment (IDE). An MCU is basically a whole computer system on a single chip. That is, it includes the central processing unit (CPU), memory and I/O.
To use this programmer, the user must first install the Arduino IDE on the host computer, along with the USBTinyISP drivers, if they are not already installed. Once this development environment has been installed and tested, to program an ATtiny MCU, you just plug this board into an available USB port and insert an ATtiny MCU into the Dual Inline Package (DIP) header. Once the program has been written in the IDE, you simply download it through the IDE into the CPU, exactly like you would if you were programming an Arduino board.
Note that, while this board is only designed to accept the eight-pin ATtiny chips, it can be used to program the 14 and 20 pin versions of the ATtiny by connecting the six pins on the end of the Tiny AVR Programmer to the In-circuit serial programming2 (ICSP) pins on the MCUs. See the comments on SparkFun Electronics Web page for more information.
Not a kit per se, SparkFun Electronics refers to the Digital Sandbox (DS) (Digital Sandbox, DEV-12651, SparkFun Electronics, $74.95) as “a learning platform that engages both the software and hardware worlds.” It is a single printed circuit board containing a programmable microcontroller that can interact with real-world inputs and outputs. Examples of inputs might be light sensors and temperature sensors, while outputs might be controlling motors, LEDs, etcetera. Everything needed to complete 13 directed experiments is included on this board, what other experiments your recipient decides to do are up to them.
For programming, the Digital Sandbox is connected to a host computer via a USB cable. The DS can then be programmed using the Arduino IDE. To simplify the learning experience, SparkFun Electronics has developed an Arduino add-on called Ardublock. This allows your giftee to develop programs graphically, rather than writing code.
The manual for the Digital Sandbox contains full code examples and troubleshooting tips. No soldering is required to perform their documented experiments. SparkFun indicates that they recommend this kit for beginners ages eight and up, so it provides an excellent entry point for anyone who has wanted to learn more about how computers work, but hadn’t gotten to the point of jumping in.
Arduinos are a very popular open-source single board computer. They were originally developed for use by designers and artists, but were quickly adopted by many others. SparkFun pulled their favorite features from several different Arduino models and created their own version, which they call the SparkFun RedBoard – Programmed with Arduino (RedBoard – Programmed with Arduino, DEV-12757, SparkFun Electronics, $19.95). The RedBoard, as you would expect from the full name, can be programmed using the Arduino IDE, just select ‘Arduino UNO’ when telling the development system which board you are using. This board is very flexible regarding its power supply. You can power it through the USB connection or via the on-board barrel jack. Since this board includes on-board power regulation, it will accept anything between seven and 15 VDC.
For those already involved with the Arduino, this board is built around an ATmega328 microcontroller with the Optiboot (UNO) Bootloader. Additionally, it incorporates a Future Technology Devices International Ltd. (FTDI) FT231X – Full Speed USB to Full Handshake UART chip to simplify programming over the USB port. This unit provides 14 digital I/O pins, of which six support pulse width modulation (PWM), as well as six analog inputs. It runs with a clock speed of 16 MHz and is populated with 32 K of flash memory. The physical design is also R3 Shield Compatible, meaning that you can use it with the wide variety of special function boards available, both from SparkFun electronics and a raft of other manufacturers. This board is definitely usable as is. Once you start using it for projects, you will obviously need to purchase other components to allow it to interact with the physical world, but to start learning how to program it, you’re all set. This is definitely a good and inexpensive way to get involved with the Arduino world. If your recipient is starting from scratch, you might consider the SparkFun Starter Kit for RedBoard – Programmed with Arduino (SparkFun Starter Kit for RedBoard – Programmed with Arduino, DEV-12789, $49.95), as this comes with a variety of sensors, cables, and other components to help someone get started with learning projects.
When developing computer and electronic projects, it is frequently very important to know the behavior of your project over time. Since this is such a common need, SparkFun Electronics sells the Logomatic v2 Serial SD Datalogger (FAT32) (Logomatic v2 Serial SD Datalogger (FAT32), WIG-12772, SparkFun, $54.95). This card is the latest evolution from SparkFun’s experience with multiple data logging projects.
A continuing design goal has been to make this board as flexible as possible. Due to their design choices, they are able to use the SparkFun LPC2148 USB bootloader. This feature allows easy modification to the board’s firmware without the need of a programmer.
Since it uses a USB mass storage stack, over the USB port it appears as a USB drive to the host system. The card is designed to capture logs in a FAT32 format on microSD media. The user can then access the logs over the USB port or the microSD card can be extracted and inserted into a card reader on the external system. The board is designed so that it can be powered off of the USB connector, but also includes a JST connector compatible with the LiPo batteries that SparkFun sells. A built-in charger is incorporated on the board so that, when used in conjunction with the LiPo batteries, it can recharge the battery using power supplied through the USB port. SparkFun indicates that this card is shipped with a fully functional asic serial text and analog logging program. However, they encourage modification of this firmware to customize it for the user’s specific requirements.
The Logomatic v2 is based on a LPC2148 ARM7 microcontroller and comes with 512K of user available flash memory, two status LEDs, 10 available GPIO pins, and an external interrupt. Check the SparkFun Web page for more details, but this provides a very simple, effective and flexible data logger. The possible uses of this data logger are limited only by your imagination.
Have a budding Meteorologist on your gift list? Or perhaps a gardener who is meticulous regarding tracking conditions in their garden? Consider gifting them with a Weather Shield (Weather Shield, DEV-12081, SparkFun Electronics, $39.95) from SparkFun Electronics. Don’t know what a Shield is? An Arduino shield is simply a modular circuit board that stacks on the Arduino, some refer to it as piggybacking, to add additional functionality. Some boards add little functionality and may just break some of the pins out to terminal strips, others may add a lot of functionality. A good introduction to shields can be found on the SparkFun Tutorials section under Arduino Shields. For those curious about the variety of shields available, check out the Arduino Shield List Web page. The Weather Shield includes sensors to provide information on barometric pressure, relative humidity, luminosity and temperature. This shield also includes contacts for attaching RJ11 6-Pin female connectors for attaching optional sensors for measuring wind speed and direction, as well as a rain gauge, which would either need to be fabricated or purchased separately. For those interested, SparkFun sells these optional sensors under the name Weather Meters (SEN-08942, $69.95). I have only seen photographs of the Weather Meters unit, but everything I’ve seen from SparkFun Electronics has been well made and reliable. More importantly, on those rare occasions when there has been a problem, their customer service has been nothing short of exceptional and a model for the industry. If there is a problem, they fix it, sometimes before the customer is even aware of it. To see what can be done with this shield, check out the article Weather Station Wirelessly Connected to Wunderground in SparkFun’s Tutorials section. Remember, the Weather Shield is sold as a stand-alone board, as shown. This shield does not include headers, connectors or other components. These must be purchased separately. To use this shield effectively, it must be paired with an Arduino board.
Those of you who have followed the adventures of Lazarus Long, likely remember the wisdom from his notebooks in Robert Heinlein’s novel Time Enough for Love3. One in particular that comes to mind is that…
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects!
This is true whether the human being is male or female. In addition to just the pleasure of giving a gift that someone enjoys, you can use your gift giving to help break down some of the stereotypes regarding the appropriate activities for girls and boys (and men and women as well), that still seem to linger and limit us. One way of doing this is by giving a gift that is intriguing enough to grab the attention and imagination while combining several of these stereotypical skills. An excellent example of these are what is sometimes termed ‘fabric circuits’ or ‘wearable electronics’. The range of available components is expanding every day. One of the more recent ones is the LillyPad MP3 (LillyPad MP3, DEV-11013, SparkFun, $49.95).
This is an all-in-one solution for adding audio to a wearable electronics project. Built around an Arduino-compatible MCU, it includes an integrated audio decoder chip, microSD socket and a stereo audio amplifier. You can power this device using one of SparkFun’s 3.7 VDC Lithium polymer batteries and take advantage of this board’s built-in charger, or you can use any external 3.5-6 VDC power source. As delivered, it will play specific audio files when any of its five trigger inputs are grounded. SparkFun includes example code for programming a more general purpose MP3 player. The only other things required to use this device is to add a microSD card and speakers. However, since your recipient will be programming it, they can add extra functionality as well. Whether they want to have LEDs flash in time with the music, play different music depending on where they are, or something totally off the wall, SparkFun Electronics includes an extensive line of sewable components developed specifically for the LilyPad and wearable electronics. Whether designing a costume for Halloween or Comicon, or just functional everyday wear, you can find what you need at SparkFun.
While you could just throw your victims, I mean recipients, into the deep end of that project, somehow that doesn’t seem quite appropriate for the holidays. So, in a more festive tone, I suggest that you pair that gift with the book Make: Wearable Electronics by Kate Hartman (MakerMedia, Print ISBN: 978-1-4493-3651-6, Ebook ISBN: 978-1-4493-3650-9, Print: $34.99, Ebook: $14.99, ©2014). The subtitle of this book is Design, prototype, and wear your own interactive garments, which pretty much describes the intent of this book. This book is one of the better introductions to wearable electronics that I’ve seen. It is definitely not an electrical engineering course and generally doesn’t go deep into the theory behind a particular component or approach. However, it is full of practical information to get you started with wearable electronics. It starts off with a basic circuit tutorial and, from there, makes some deep dives into various aspects of wearable electronics. Chapters include an examination of conductive materials, available E-Textiles, microcontrollers, sensors and actuators, as well as the application of wireless technology to give your projects the ability to communicate. Perhaps most importantly, it goes through the philosophy of making electronics wearable, that is, it discusses the different aspects that must be considered to make a project comfortably wearable, some of the problems you might encounter, along with possible ways of dealing with them. You will also encounter extended discussions of the various tools you might find useful in these projects, both for the electronics and the sewing.
Whether coming at this from the sewing, electronics or computer sides, even if coming in with no experience in any of these fields, this is an excellent book to get one up to speed. While it is definitely a great book for beginners, I suspect that it would be very helpful to anyone in the field as well. Because these projects bring so many different skills and necessary expertise together, even those experienced are likely to find something new, or a different way of looking at a problem. The hardest part of wearable electronics is getting over the hurdle of getting started. Once you’ve done that, while you may face a lot of hard work, you are also in for a lot of fun!
Another book that would make a good gift, whether to someone working with fabric circuits, computer interfaces, or plain electronic circuits, is Electrical Engineering 101 – (3rd Edition) by Daren Ashby (BOK-09458, SparkFun, ISBN: 978-0-12-386001-9, $39.95). It makes both a good introduction to electronics principles, for those who have no background with them, as well as a good refresher for those who have.
More importantly, it gives a lot of practical advice, usually accompanied by real life examples. In addition, many sections end with a list of Thumb Rules. Some of these rules are simple statements of fact regarding electronic circuits, many very basic, but also easily overlooked while crunching through calculations. Many of them are things that are implied by electronic theory, but frequently never stated. Topics covered range from analytical approaches and shortcuts to Op-Amps, microprocessors, power supplies and tools. The technical section winds up with an examination of troubleshooting, a topic with which everyone eventually gets a lot of experience. What I was surprised by is that the last chapter covers ‘Touchy-Feely Stuff’, basically people and communication skills. These are very important areas that are frequently ignored in many technical courses. Just flipping through this book it is easy to get the impression that it is a superficial book relating to electrical engineering, but when you take the time to actually read through it, you’ll greatly appreciate the technical information and wisdom it contains.
Finally, to wrap up this year’s holiday gift guide, I suggest the book Vintage Tomorrows by historian James H. Carrott and futurist Brian David Johnson (MakerMedia, Print ISBN: 978-1-4493-3799-5, Ebook ISBN: 978-1-4493-3794-0, 412pp, ©2013, Print: $24.99, Ebook: $15.99). What can you really say about a book that starts off with “A Futurist and a Cultural Historian Walk Into a Bar”? Many people have found this book difficult to classify, perhaps because if falls between, or perhaps better, across, many of our current literary ‘classifications’. It is definitely not a dry intellectual examination of what Steampunk is, as much as it is about the authors somewhat ethnographic4 exploration of it. In this book, Carrott and Johnson take a journey through the Steampunk universe, in part to try and identify the cause of its popularity, what it might say about our current view of our technology, and what insights it might provide regarding society’s technological future.
It would be worthwhile reading, if only because of its numerous interviews with what might best be termed experts in the field. Among the interviewed are people such as William, Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, James Gleick and Margaret Atwood. These interviews help clarify how this vision of modern technology, in terms of function, being projected back into the past where they are recreated as hand-tooled devices by skilled craftspeople. It may well be that the interaction in these interviews is one of the best parts of this book. One answer they search for is whether Steampunk is the, or at least a, counter-cultural5 movement of our time, though it seems like this term is so overused that I suspect most don’t know the actual definition of what it means.
I have seen reviews all over the place regarding the writing style and just what this book is. However, I agree with those stating that it is the enthusiasm of the authors that pulls you in, frequently to the point of feeling like you are participating in their interviews and adventures. The dichotomy of their backgrounds, one looking to the past and the other to the future, works well to ensure that all the aspects of a topic, good and bad, are brought out. What most people seem to comment on is how this book ‘connects-the-dots’ and ties together so many events that aren’t obviously related. For example, it ties together the apparent philosophy of Steampunk with things such as the hippie movement of the ‘60s, Burning Man and the Maker/Hacker/DIY movements. Whether Steampunk is just a visual esthetic or has deeper unconscious meaning, I’ll leave to the reader to decide, but it may well be a question that needs no answer, as I feel that its ‘meaning’ is different for every person in it. If nothing else, it will give you a better insight into Steampunk than just a vague thought that ‘ it looks cool’.
As a special bonus to Vintage Tomorrows, an electronic version of the companion book Steampunking Our Future: An Embedded Historian’s Notebook by historian James H. Carrott and futurist Brian David Johnsonis available for download from O’Reilly Media (Steampunking Our Future, O’Reilly Media, Free/$0). This book is primarily material that didn’t fit into Vintage Tomorrows. (According to Carrott, “the general consensus was that people would prefer to be able to actually pick up Vintage Tomorrows without the assistance of hydraulic machinery”). It primarily consists of two sections. The first is principally an account of how they went about performing their research for Vintage Tomorrows and some background on the project. The second, called Why Settle for the Lesser Death Ray?, is an extended ‘interview’ with Greg Broadmore of Weta Workshop in New Zealand, interspersed with multiple asides. Weta was a key creator of costumes and makeup for The Lord of the Rings movies produced by Peter Jackson. Greg is also the creator of ‘those awesome rayguns’ that appear in the graphic novel/catalog Doctor Grordbort’s Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory. I found their actual conversation quite entertaining.
We hope you have found suitable items here to fill the remaining empty slots in your gift list. No matter which of the winter holidays you’re celebrating, the Scientific Computing family wishes you and yours nothing but the best for this coming year.
1 Microcontroller – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia Free Encycl. 2014; published online Nov 1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microcontroller (accessed Nov 7, 2014).
2 In-circuit serial programming – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia Free Encycl. 2014; published online Aug 2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In-circuit_serial_programming (accessed Nov 7, 2014).
3 Heinlein R. Notebooks of Lazarus Long. Angel Fire. 1973. http://www.angelfire.com/or/sociologyshop/lazlong.html (accessed Nov 7, 2014).
4 Ethnography – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia Free Encycl. 2014; published online Oct 30. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnography (accessed Nov 8, 2014).
5 Counterculture – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia Free Encycl. 2014; published online Nov 4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterculture (accessed Nov 8, 2014).
John Joyce is a laboratory informatics specialist based in Richmond, VA. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.
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