Greetings! Welcome to the second installment of Scientific Computing’s holiday gift guide for 2014. This section focuses on gifts of more general interest, so that they’ll be suitable for your giftees without a technical background — you know, muggles! But don’t worry, many of these are suitable for the Geeks in your life as well. Part I focuses on more technical items, though there are a number that might appeal to your more sophisticated muggle as well.
This year, we have a diverse set of recordings from Nuclear Blast America. Our first musical selection this year is Music Inspired by The Life and Times of Scrooge (Nuclear Blast Records, NB 3196-2, ASIN: B00I38JJ2Q, ©2014, $12.00) written and produced by Tuomas Holopainen, keyboardist and main songwriter of NIGHTWISH. This is Tuomas’ first solo album, and it is based on the Walt Disney comic The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, which was drawn and written by the famed Don Rosa. There were apparently a lot of reviewers who strongly doubted that Tuomas could create something worthwhile from what, depending on your age, was either a comic book or a graphic novel. However, that doubt appears to have entirely disappeared. Metal Blast1 has even rated this album as an Editor’s Pick and given it five stars out of five for Musicianship, Production and Replay Value, even though it has turned out NOT to be a metal album. The worst negative that I’ve heard about it is that you need to listen to it in its entirety to really appreciate it. Unlike many productions, this one truly is a labor of love that Tuomas has worked on since its inception in 1999. Making it even more unique, Don Rosa created the cover art for the album and allowed use of the original cartoon panels as internal illustrations. According to Nuclear Blast USA, “The music will be of soundtrack / classical / folk genre in the vein of Vaughan Williams, Michael Nyman, James Newton Howard and Enya.” This album was definitely not what I was expecting, given Nuclear Blasts normal focus, but I greatly enjoyed it and highly recommend it!
Alternately, for those with a taste toward more classic rock, we have All Hell Breaks Loose, the debut album from Black Star Riders (Nuclear Blast Records, NB 3069-8, ASIN: B00C25TCZ0, ©2013, $14.99). Following Thin Lizzy’s October 2012 announcement that they would be recording no new material under the Thin Lizzy name in respect for former frontman Phil Lynott, Black Star Riders was created. It included Thin Lizzy members Scott Gorham, Ricky Warwick, Damon Johnson and Marco Mendoza, joined by drummer Jimmy DeGrasso. Reviews of this release were generally quite positive, with a number almost literally issuing sighs of relief and lauding the band for how true they had stayed to the sound of Thin Lizzy. At the 2013 Metal Hammer Golden God Awards in London, Scott Gorham was declared “Riff Lord” for his work on this album. On discussing this album with one of my contacts in the music industry, she indicated that this was her favorite rock release of 2013, which says quite a bit all by itself.
The final musical selection for this year’s guide is Sabaton’s Heroes (Nuclear Blast Records, NB 3224-2, ASIN: B00ISYLDS8, ©2014, $9.99). Formed in Falun, Sweden, in 1999, Sabaton’s songs generally focus on historical events, primarily historical wars and battles. Heroes, their seventh studio album, continues that trend. According to band member Pär Sundström,2 in Heroes it was decided that, instead of writing songs about battles, they would instead focus on individuals. Specifically, “Individuals who we think basically went beyond their call of duty, put themselves into harm’s way for the good of others. And, we decided to focus around World War II.” Just following the historical background and inspiration of these songs is fascinating.3 Usually labeled as power metal, the band does rely primarily on the characteristic sounds and instruments of metal. However, while the lyrics have a growling delivery, I did not find the sound grating, as I frequently do with the ‘death growls’ that sometimes fill the songs of other bands. Overall, I found them an interesting band to explore. This album debuted at 99 on the US charts and received a Golden Award in Sweden.
Of course, when you have music you love, you want to share this music, and we have that covered. Our first selection is the UE Mini BOOM Bluetooth speaker from Ultimate Ears, a brand of Logitech (UE Mini Boom, Ultimate Ears, $99.99). The UE Mini Boom, available in five different color combinations, is much more than ‘just’ a Bluetooth speaker. It is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that provides you with up to 10 hours of music. You can then recharge it using the included micro USB cable in only 3.8 hours. If you’ve experienced the sometimes ‘fun’ process of pairing a USB speaker with your smart phone, you’ll be pleased with the simplicity of pairing with the UE Mini BOOM via its support of NFC (passive). This means that, if you have an active NFC-enabled phone running Android Jellybean or higher, you can pair the devices by simply touching them together. Don’t let its diminutive size fool you. While only 7.6 cm (2.6”) long, 11.1 cm (4.4”) wide and 6.1 cm (2.4”) tall, this 301g device puts out clearer sound than devices many times its size. It is compatible with any device that supports the Bluetooth wireless audio profile [Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP)] or Hands-Free Profile (HFP1.5). The latter allows you to receive phone calls through the paired device. For those that prefer the old school, you can also connect this speaker to a device via its 3.5mm audio jack. A feature absent from most Bluetooth speakers is that you can pair two of the UE Mini BOOM speakers to a single device and configure them for stereo operation. While many of the basic functions can be handled via the controls built into the device, to take full advantage of its flexibility, you need to download its free supporting app from Google play or the Apple App Store.
If you have any photographers on your gift list, we have items for them too, starting with the Ampridge Mighty Mic S, courtesy of Photojojo (Ampridge Mighty Mic S, Photojojo, $70). The Mighty Mic S is a miniature shotgun microphone that plugs into the 3.5 mm jack on the users smart phone. It is designed so that you can plug a set of headphones/earbuds into the 3.5 mm jack on the back of the microphone to monitor what you are recording. When used with an iPhone and the accompanying iPhone MoviePro App, you can monitor what is actually being recorded. There is not an accompanying app for the Android, but it works with most video apps. The purpose of a shotgun mic is to have a directional pickup. Everyone knows how well the microphone on a smart phone picks up all the ambient noise when you are recording. What you brain filters out while you are recording comes thorough quite well when you play it back. The directional pickup of this mic helps eliminate some of that ambient noise by primarily picking up sounds from wherever it is pointed. No specs were provided for this unit, but several reviewers indicated that they observed a 5dB-10dB difference regarding the response of the microphone to sounds in front of and behind the microphone. It comes with a foam windscreen and a zippered carrying case. For those needing greater differentiation, a simple cardboard cone attached to the front of the microphone can enhance its directionality. By using the appropriate patch cord, you can actually move the mic off of the phone so that you can place it closer to the subject or target the subject from a different angle.
Another frequent issue with smart phone photography is lighting. If you are shooting indoors or in other low-light situations, you frequently have to either work with a dimly lit subject or use the LED flash on the smart phone, which tends to give harsh shadows or the ever popular glowing vampire eyes! Photojojo’s Pocket Spotlight (The Pocket Spotlight, Photojojo, $30.00) can eliminate that problem. It measures only 2.5” x 1.5”, or about the size of a pack of gum. Powered by its internal rechargeable battery, The Pocket Spotlight shines with a bright diffuse light for up to an hour from its array of 32 white LEDs. When finished, just plug it in to recharge via the included USB cable. The Pocket Spotlight can be mounted on a standard SLR hot shoe, plugged into a smart phone’s headphone jack, or simply hand held. It allows one to take many artistic photos that otherwise be impossible to take with a smart phone. For those wishing to experiment, there is also an optional set of color filters, which can be purchased separately.
Another gadget from Photomojo, to give your recipient more control over their smart phone pictures, is the Muku Shutter Remote for iPhone and Android Phones (Muku Phone Shutter Remote, Photomojo, $40.00). This is a Bluetooth shutter remote for use with both iPhone and Android phones, without the use of any additional apps. It can also be used to start and stop video recordings to avoid the jarring that frequently attends pressing the start/stop button on the phone.
To use the camera in your smart phone more effectively, Camkix has provided several lines of accessory lenses. The first set is the Samsung Galaxy S4 Lens Kit, which, surprisingly enough, was designed specifically to work with the Samsung Galaxy S4. This Kit, including a 12X Telephoto Lens, a Fisheye Lens, a 2-in-1 Macro and Wide Angle Lens, and a Mini Tripod (Samsung Galaxy S4 Lens Kit, Camkix, $54.99). What makes this set unique for the Galaxy S4 is the plate that clips to the back of the phone. The various lenses then screw into this back plate. The advantage to this system is that the lens is carefully positioned in-line with the camera, as well as providing a cutout so that you can still use the camera’s flash. The downside of this is that you have to clip the back plate to the phone to be able to use it. If your recipient doesn’t use a case or decides to use the back plate as their case, this isn’t a problem. However, for everyone else who uses a protective case with their phone, whether a simple gel glove or a hardened waterproof case that could probably withstand a nuclear attack, this is a definite disadvantage. If your recipient has to first take their phone out of its case to attach the back plate, and reverse the process when it’s done, this gift will likely not be used very often, so consider the recipients usage behavior before deciding on this as a gift. Camkix has similar kits specifically for the iPhone 4/4S and 5C, as well as the Samsung Galaxy S3, S4, S5, and the Galaxy Note 3. Prices vary depending on the particular lenses and accessories included.
If your giftee’s phone is not listed above or if they habitually use a case, all is not lost. Camkix also sells a Universal Smart Phone Camera Lens Kit (Universal Smart Phone Camera Lens Kit, Camkix, $54.99). It too comes with a 12X Telephoto Lens, a Fisheye Lens, a 2-in-1 Macro and Wide Angle Lens, as well as a Mini Tripod (Universal Smart Phone Camera Lens Kit, Camkix, $54.99). As shown in the accompanying photograph, the specialized back plate has been replaced with an adjustable clamp, so that the kit can be successfully used with any smart phone in just about any case. While the presence of a case does alter the distance from the smart phone’s camera to the attached lens, in all but the most extreme cases, the auto-focus system of the camera can compensate for this. The advantage of this system is that you do not have to have a customized back plate for every phone you might have. The disadvantage is complementary, in that since you don’t have a customized back plate to correctly position the lens, you must carefully adjust the clamp so that the attached lens is centered over the device’s camera. This is generally not difficult to do, but it does take more time than clipping on a back plate, well, assuming that the phone wasn’t in a case to begin with. I have seen some cases where it would take longer to extract the phone from its case than it would to mount and adjust this clamp.
Note that, with the above kits, the lenses screw into the carrier and, in some instances, with each other. The caveat is that, to make the lens combinations easier to remove, some of the threads are clockwise and others are counterclockwise. The lens bodies are machined aluminum for durability, and both kits come with an ECO-FUSED Microfiber Cleaning Cloth, a velvet bag to manage all of the components, and an instruction manual. Also, keep in mind that, while all of these lens kits will help your recipient take photographs they previously couldn’t, you should not expect them to be of the same quality as you would obtain with an SLR camera with a precision machined and mounted telephoto lens. Depending on the specific kit ordered, the included telephoto lens might be 8x, 12x or 20x.
Neither of the lens kits discussed above would work with a tablet. So for those giftees, or for people who would prefer to be able to just pop a lens on or off, consider Camkix’s Universal 3 in 1 Lens Kit for Smart Phones and Tablets (Universal 3 in 1 Lens Kit for Smart Phones and Tablets, Camkix, $19.99). With bodies made from machined aluminum, this kit is available in anodized Silver, Gold, Purple, Red, Black, and Blue. I’ve found this kit very easy to position and, in most instances, it will work with devices in their cases. Unless your giftee has a tablet with a very unusual camera position, this kit should work with just about any device. Note, however, that unlike the previously described lens kits, this one does not include a telephoto lens. The contents of this kit include a fish eye lens, a macro lens and a wide angle lens, along with the universal clip-on lens holder and a Microfiber carrying pouch.
For those with standard SLR cameras, you might consider the Bluetooth Smart Trigger from Satechi (Bluetooth Smart Trigger, Satechi, $59.99). The Smart Trigger consists of a Bluetooth module that slides onto the camera’s hot shoe and a corresponding Smart Trigger iPhone/Android app for your smartphone. This device comes in several different versions to operate with different cameras. I’m not sure if the only difference between them is the connector that comes with the Bluetooth module or if there are firmware differences in this module as well. In any case, if you are considering giving this as a gift, please scrutinize the device’s Web page very carefully and make sure you know the giftees camera and smart phone model. The device runs on AAA batteries and, since it uses Bluetooth 4.0 technology, including low-energy BLE, the idle battery life is two to 10 years!
Unfortunately, there is a downside to its use of Bluetooth 4. Apparently, due to the chip sets involved, this device is currently only compatible with the following devices: iPhone 5(C,S), iPhone 4S, iPad 3, iPad Mini, Samsung Galaxy SIII, SIV, Note II. It can control various, but not all, Canon, Nikon and Panasonic cameras. For those compatible device pairs, this remote provides a variety of operating modes. The Regular Shot mode allows the device to operate as a wireless shutter remote, useful for when the photographer wants to be present in the photograph as well. The Manual Shot mode basically allows the photographer to trigger the camera’s Bulb Mode remotely. This means that the shutter is locked open as long as the remote trigger is active. This allows you to take long time exposures without the jitter that frequently accompanies pressing the camera’s trigger button. Finally, the Timed Shot mode allows your device to operate as an intervalometer. If you don’t know what an intervalometer4 is, don’t worry, it’s just a device to trigger a function at a repeating interval. This name comes from combining its alternate name of interval meter. In this instance, it can be used to take long exposures for a preset duration (i.e. longer than the camera’s internal timer) or to take a series of exposures at a preset interval, such as for time-lapse photography.
Now, anyone who is heavily into photography with an SLR camera is going to need something to protect and haul around all of that equipment. Since you are reading this in Scientific Computing, it is quite likely that they might need to haul a laptop around with them as well. We have an ideal gift for that person. Check out the SLR Camera/Laptop Backpack from Case Logic (SLRC-206-BLACK, Case Logic, $119.99). Unlike many camera bags, and back packs for that matter, the base of this water-resistance camera bag is made from molded EVA. This helps the bag stand upright, but prevents water from seeping in from the ground. The computer compartment is designed to hold a 16″ laptop, the 17″ MacBook Pro, or a similarly sized device (dimensions- 15.4″ x 10.4″ x 1″). Its camera compartment can store a SLR camera with attached zoom lens in a patent-pending hammock system to provide superior impact protection. The remaining camera compartment is fully configurable with padded dividers that can be adjusted as needed to store and protect extra lenses and camera bodies. It not only includes four accessory pockets for storing memory cards, spare batteries and all the other accessories that might be needed by the photographer, but a series of industrial strength hook-n-loop straps on side of the bag to secure their tripod as well. It should also be noted that the back of this bag features molded foam padding with recessed channels to provide ventilation, so that your recipient doesn’t end up with the wet back associated with many backpacks. Empty, it weighs only 2.7 pounds, which is lighter than many camera bags I’ve used. Made from woven nylon, it is warranted for 25 years and comes in any color you want, as long as it’s black.
For a gift on the more esthetic side, consider one of the ornaments from Bathsheba Sculpture. This particular one is called the Mini Quin (Mini Quin, Bathsheba Sculpture LLC, $30). Modeled after one of the lamps that artist Bathsheba Grossman created for MGX by Materialise, these ornaments are 4 inches in diameter and are generated with a 3-D printer using sintered nylon. Feel free to enhance their effect by inserting a small bulb or LED into the center of the ornament. The Quinn was chosen as one of the top 100 designs of 2008 by Time Magazine. If you are looking for a gift with a more durable feel to it, I strongly suggest you check out Bathsheba’s other 3-D printed designs in the Metal Shop section of her Web site.
Looking at esthetics from another angle, I suggest checking out this Braided Leather Bracelet from Oberon Design (Braided Leather Bracelet, SKU: BRA20, Oberon Design, $40.75). It is available in both a small size, 7.75”, and a large size, 8”. The version I examined was tan leather with a Celtic knot clasp. Its sister version is identical, with the exception that it uses black leather. The clasps are hook and eye closures hand cast by Oberon Design’s craftsmen using Britannia metal.
Also available from Oberon Design, combining esthetics and functionality, are their Leather Wristlets for Men & Women. Available in nine different color/pattern combinations, the particular one that I examined was their Acanthus Leaf (Leather Wristlet | Acanthus Leaf, SKU: HBWM29, Oberon Design, $87.00), which comes in Fern. The dimensions of the wristlets are 6 7/8” x 5”with a 6.5” removable strap (8” including hardware) and they weigh in at 0.5 pound. The tooled design extends from front to back, with the design actually burned into the leather.
The Wristlet contains 4 pockets: an inner pouch pocket: 4” D x 6.5”W; two Flat Pockets 4.5” T x 7”W; and a divided credit card pocket with security flap. Both the inner pouch pocket and the Wristlet itself have high-quality snap closures. All of Oberon Design’s leather is drum dyed. This process ensures that the dye penetrates completely through the leather, so any scuffs will not show up as white, as sometimes happens with painted or surface dyed leather. Another implication of this is that each Wristlet, while cut to the same dimensions, will be unique due to small healed scars, shade variations due to how the hide has absorbed the dye, wrinkles and stretch marks, along with grain variations between hides. This leather will absorb oil from your hands, causing it to darken and develop a supple patina. Over time, all drum dyed leather will fade due to exposure to ultraviolet light. To limit this, Oberon Design recommends avoiding long term exposure to intense direct sunlight, such as on your car’s dashboard or seats. Regular application of leather conditioner will also help minimize this fading.
Our last item from Oberon Design is their Leather Pocket Notebook Covers, a gift not only beautiful, but very practical to a wide range of users. The specific cover I evaluated was their Tree of Life design in Saddle (Leather Pocket Notebook Cover | Tree of Life | Saddle, SKU: MSPM17, Oberon Design, $39.00). Unlike their Leather Wristlets, each pocket notebook cover design is generally available in three different colors of leather, selected by the artist to complement the leather stamped design. As there are eight different designs available, this should give you plenty of options from which to choose.
These covers, designed to fit pocket-sized notebooks measuring 3.5” x 5.5” x 5/8”, measure 4.25” x 6.125”. The leather on these has been thinned slightly, to reduce the bulk and weight of the cover, so they only weigh 3.2 oz. Unlike Oberon Design’s larger journal covers, their pocket notebook covers do not come with an insert, probably due to the variety of fillers available. If thinner fillers are used, Oberon Design recommends using one pocket of the cover for storage and the other pocket for the notebook filler.
While fillers for the pocket notebook covers described above are available from a variety of vendors, the quality and feel of these covers just calls out for a fountain pen. Whether it is the association with quality, reliability or prestige, it just seems like using a ballpoint pen with these covers is almost demeaning. Unfortunately, I’ve found that this can be a problem, as most of the fillers I’ve tried with a fountain pen act like blotting paper, soaking up and spreading the ink. Fortunately, while you might have to look a little harder for them, you can still find quality fillers that pair well with a fountain pen. I highly recommend the Rhodia A6 Pocket Webnotebooks. These fillers are available in blank, lined and dot grid formats with either black or orange covers. Each Webnotebook contains 96 sheets of pH neutral, acid-free ivory paper manufactured by Clairefontaine, one of the premier paper companies in the world. And yes, to make sure I answered the original question, it takes fountain pen ink very well. If you are looking for a gift for a fountain pen lover, it would be hard to beat the pairing of the Rhodia Webnotebook and the Oberon Design Pocket Notebook Covers.
There is no better way to end a brisk winter’s night than to curl up in front of the fire with a good book. In recognition of that, and to wrap up this section of our gift guide, I suggest you consider the following two books to fill some of the empty slots on your gift list. Before anyone has an apoplectic fit, while the title of our first book is technically accurate, it is also a good example of hyperbole. Jill Hughes Kirtland’s book Not Just Tits In A Corset: Celebrating Women In Metal (ISBN-13: 978-0991501519, ISBN13: 9781457969720 (eBook)) is a behind-the-scenes look at the role of women in rock and what they have had to do to get to where they are. It is built around in-depth interviews with not just the front women of several of the stand out groups in rock, but many of the women who work behind the scenes, whether promoting the groups or organizing events. It is a detailed look at the lengths they have gone to claim their space in rock.
Taking a perhaps skewed look at some of the off-the-wall questions we are sometimes asked is What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Hugo Award winning author and cartoonist Randall Munroe (“What if?”, Randall Munroe, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade Publishing, ISBN: 978-0-544-27299-6, ©2014, $24.00). If you have a slot on your list for a person who has an aversion to science, this may well be the perfect gift. It is not a dry science lecture, but rather an enjoyable romp examining the implications of some of the questions that people ask. Sometimes the explanation will directly address the question asked. Other times, it will just use the question as a jumping-off point and explore the sometimes bizarrely logical implications of the question. While it never stops to take itself too seriously, it is impossible to come away from it without learning something, even if the reader isn’t aware of it at the time. Perhaps more importantly, it nurtures the seed of curiosity, encouraging people to explore the implication of things and ask questions, as opposed to docilely accepting what they might have been told. According to the Boston Globe, The delightfully demented “What If?” is the most fun you can have with math and science, short of becoming your own evil genius.”5 and I would have to agree.
This wraps up the second section of this year’s gift guide, and I hope it has helped you fill some of those blanks in your holiday gift list. Please make sure you check out the first half of our guide, with gifts sure to appeal to the Geeks on your list. And if you decide to give one to one of your artsy friends to lure them into the technical, well, there is plenty of room on the ‘dark side.’ Happy Holidays!
1 Jon. Tuomas Holopainen – The Life and Times of Scrooge | Metal Blast! Met. Blast. 2014; published online April 16. http://www.metalblast.net/music-review/tuomas-holopainen-the-life-and-times-of-scrooge/ (accessed Nov 4, 2014).
2 Thanos. Sabaton | Grande Rock ezine. Gd. Rock Ezine. 2014; published online July 6. http://www.grande-rock.com/sabaton-2014 (accessed Nov 4, 2014).
3 Heroes (Sabaton album) – Wikipedia. Wikipedia Free Encycl. 2014; published online Oct 27. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroes _(Sabaton_album) (accessed Nov 4, 2014).
4 Intervalometer – Wikipedia. Wikipedia Free Encycl. 2014; published online Sept 12. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intervalometer (accessed Nov 3, 2014).
5 Gilsdorf E. Book review: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe – Books – The Boston Globe. Boston Globe. 2014; published online Sept 8. http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2014/09/07/book-review-whatserious-scientific-answers-absurd-hypothetical-questions-randallmunroe/VBiNvWJcWiIZKKQyoBDCVI/story.html (accessed Nov 4, 2014).
John Joyce is a laboratory informatics specialist based in Richmond, VA. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.