Gift Guide: Ideas For Makers and Hackers

makerguide
Image source: Ruth Suehle.

There’s not much shopping time left before Christmas, but it’s not too late to fill in the gaps with gifts for the makers and hackers (or would-be makers and hackers) on your list! Here are our recommendations, sorted by skill level.

Young Children

snapcirc
Image source: Amazon.

Snap Circuits (price varies)
You can get basic Snap Circuits sets for as little as $20, and they’re a great introduction to young ones with an interest in how things go together. You get to make lights light up, sounds buzz, and fans whir without soldering, but still with the ability to see what a complete circuit looks like.

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Image source: No Starch Press.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure! (Covers Version 2): Learn to Program by Making Cool Games ($16)
I always recommend this book to parents who want to get their kids interested in programming. Scratch is very basic; it introduces the principles of programming with puzzle pieces and a clever cat. This book adds a comic book aspect and results in a finished game that the child made herself.

Beginners

These items are ready for someone who has little to no programming or hardware experience.

bananapiano
Image source: MakeyMakey.com.

Makey Makey ($50)
If you’ve ever said to yourself, “Gee, self, wouldn’t it be great if somebody would turn this banana into a game controller?,” then the Makey Makey is just the thing you’re looking for. Basically, it turns anything into a keypress. Like what? The product description suggests ketchup, pencil graphite, your grandma, pets, and rain. Anything that can conduct at all. It’s a super-easy entry point to electronics.

prototwink
Image source: Sparkfun.com.

LilyTwinkle ($19.95)
This is the anybody-can-do-it path to LEDs in your hoodie. As long as you can hand sew without crossing the threads, you’re good to go. It comes with the board, battery, thread, and even the needles, as well as four white LEDs. Sew a path from the board to each LED, and you’re finished. Tip: The Firefly Jar Kit at Sparkfun is the same board and same price, but with a felt “jar” to give you a starter project. And you can always reuse the pieces later. Those ready for more complicated projects should check out the more advanced LilyPad board in the next section.

solder
Image source: Amazon.com.

Soldering Iron (price varies)
Any electronics builder is eventually going to need a soldering iron. There are several basic kits out there, including ones from Elenco, the company that makes the fantastic Snap Circuits toys. (Those are a great gift for the much younger future makers on your list.) Elenco also offers a Deluxe Learn To Solder Kit with more practical application practice.

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Image source: Sparkfun.com.

Electronic Dice Kit ($19.95)
This is a fun kit to build for someone who knows how to solder but not how to program, especially if they also happen to be gamers. About an hour of building, and they’ll have an LED D6 device.

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Image source: Sparkfun.com.

Metro-Gnome $14.95)
Similarly, the Metro-Gnome is a basic digital metronome for the music-loving maker on your list. It requires basic soldering skills (or serves as a learn-to-solder project).

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Image source: Adafruit.com.

myDazzu ($19.95)
This programmable introduction to wearable electronics includes three LEDs and built-in light and temperature sensors. But you don’t have to know how to solder!

Intermediate

These are the gifts for someone a little bit older or a little bit more experienced. They don’t need to be programmers (yet), but these things will help get them there.

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Image source: No Starch Press.

Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming ($21)
This is the book I recommend for kids who are a bit beyond Scratch, but not quite ready for the usual programming books.

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Image source: O’Reilly Media.

Raspberry Pi—and related items ($35 and up)
A Raspberry Pi itself costs $35 from any number of retailers. If you’re looking to spend a bit more, you could buy a few accessories for a project you think might interest the recipient. There are also starter kits like this one from Adafruit, which are useful if you have no idea what to buy. However, in my opinion, they tend to be a bit overpriced for anyone who has any tinkering items at all already. Of course, I also have to mention my own book, Raspberry Pi Hacks: Tips & Tools for Making Things with the Inexpensive Linux Computer, which includes more than 60 tips and projects for users of every experience level. (See notes in the next section about whether you should get a Pi or an Arduino.)

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Image source: Sparkfun.

ProtoSnap – LilyPad Development Board Complete ($69.95)
For those who would enjoy the LilyTwinkle mentioned above, but with a few more bells and whistles, the more robust LilyPad Protosnap includes more LEDs as well as a light sensor, temperature sensor, and buzzer.

Advanced

These gift recipients know what they’re doing and are ready to build. They probably already have some programming experience.

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Image source: Adafruit.com.

Bare Conductive Paint ($9.95)
Bare Paint is a water-based paint that lets you draw (well, paint) conductive lines on just about any surface where you can paint. It’s safe and way easier than acid etching, but it’s not waterproof.

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Image source: Amazon.com.

Arduino—and Lego! ($25 and up)
People often ask me whether they should get a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino. It’s an apples and oranges situation—the Pi is a full computer. Plug in an SD card and peripherals, and you can boot right into Linux. The Arduino is only a microcontroller. So for someone who has no idea what to do with it, it can be a lot less satisfying to dive right into after Christmas dinner. That said, if you do have someone in the family with more patience and/or programming experience, I recommend also picking up Arduino and LEGO Projects, a book of projects you can build with Lego bricks and enhance with an Arduino. There’s even a TARDIS project on the cover!

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Image source: Adafruit.com.

DIY Gamer Kit ($56.95)
If you want to give a ready-to-build Arduino-based gift, this is a good starting point. It’s a tiny screen (8×8!), but you can upload your own game’s code to an Arduino and play it on this board. Tutorials are available for those who need some inspiration.

Membership to a local hackerspace (price varies)
Of course, anyone can benefit from this gift, but I put it under the advanced listings because they tend to not be inexpensive. If you’re not sure where yours is, check the listings at hackerspaces.org.

How a Hacker Slumber Party Gets Girls Into Code

Pearl Hacks logo

When Gina Likins walked into Carroll Hall at the University of North Carolina, she was reminded of the sleepovers of her youth. But this was no ordinary slumber party. This was Pearl Hacks, a 24-hour girls-only hackathon focused on getting young women excited about technology and programming.

In this piece at Opensource.com, Likins outlines the event’s workshops and goals. She also explains just why such events are important for young women around the world:

“All of this was fun, but also very important. The percentage of computer science degrees that are being earned by women has decreased in the past 20 years. So, why were more women earning degrees two decades ago than they are now? One suspected reason for this trend is that women feel unwelcome in the computer industry due to the predominance of men at conferences, coding meetups, and hackathons, which are a central part of coder culture. Some female and male programmers have started female-centric hackathons to help create spaces where women can feel more welcome and at ease.”

Read the full article at Opensource.com.

Vintage Tomorrows Connects Steampunk, Makers, and the Future of Technology

Vintage Tomorrows cover, O'Reilly
Vintage Tomorrows cover, O’Reilly

Often we do, quite literally, judge a book by its cover. And like the cliché implies, sometimes what’s inside is so much more than what we expected. I certainly don’t mean to imply anything negative about the cover of Vintage Tomorrows–in fact, it was the cover that first drew my eye. What I didn’t expect was 383 pages that connected so many dots for me, so many of my interests that I had no idea were related, much less that they could all draw lines back to steampunk.

The book’s subtitle, A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into the Future of Technology, summarizes as well as so few words can what’s to be found inside, but what it really gives you a glimpse of is the duality of the co-authors, one looking back and the other looking forwards. James Carrott is the historian half, but also was once the global product manager for the Xbox 360. Brian David Johnson looks into the metaphorical crystal ball to see technology’s future for Intel. The title of the first chapter, “A Futurist and a Cultural Historian Walk Into a Bar,” gives you a good idea of the tone of the rest of the book (much of which was imagined over pints of beer). It’s an academic tome with distinctly non-academic language. In referring to steampunk as “‘postmodern’ like nobody’s business,” Carrott notes, “and I hope never to use this word again in the course of this entire book (scary, bad academic things happen when one invokes such demons).” I wholeheartedly agree.

Continue reading Vintage Tomorrows Connects Steampunk, Makers, and the Future of Technology

Give Kids Arduino Adventures

Aduino2
Image courtesy Apress.

Arduino Adventures: Escape from Gemini Station is a great introduction to Arduino robotics projects for kids (and adults who want an easy starting point.) The book was written by James Floyd Kelly and Harold Timmis and published by Apress. Full disclosure: James Floyd Kelly is a contributor on GeekDad, and Apress is also my book publisher.

The basic structure of Arduino Adventures is the intertwining of the “escape from Gemini Station” story followed by a lesson and project. The projects build upon themselves and eventually finish with a completed robot and some explanation of Arduino programming.

There’s no soldering required, and there’s even a kit you can purchase with all parts for all the lessons mentioned in the book. Even without the kit, most of the parts should be available at your local Radio Shack.

The structure of the book is very logical, and the authors took care to eliminate a lot of the more frustrating points with big robotics projects, such as soldering errors. By the end of the book, kids should have some building blocks for understanding electronics and programming, although this book will not bring them to expert level. However, this sort of scaffolded introduction into robotics could easily spark their interest and motivate them to explore on their own.

This is the sort of mother-child project bonding book I’d recommend for the 8-12 year olds who are new to robotics. Older kids may want to go through the lessons on their own. I plan on going through the lessons with my daughter’s robotics club, because it gives the younger kids some projects that don’t require soldering and go beyond Snap Circuits or Little Bits.

The Open Hardware Summit: The Future of Manufacturing is Sharing

Open Hardware Summit attendees show off their Lego-brick badges, which once said “OHS,” now modified to various video game scenes. All photos CC-BY-SA Ruth Suehle.

The Open Hardware Summit was held for the third time last Thursday in New York in advance of World Maker Faire in nearby Queens. This is the first year that it was held by the relatively new Open Source Hardware Association, which is now accepting members.

Speakers ranged in age from 11-year-old Super-Awesome Sylvia, who is in the third season of her DIY webshow for makers, to 77-year-old Pat Delany, who created a $150 lathe/mill/drill from scrap metal.

Wired’s Chris Anderson keynoted on “Microeconomics for Makers,” though he admitted, “My presentation title looks like I have the answers, but I don’t.” He then offered the true, bottom-line simplicity of the business model: “We sell products for more than they cost.” On having an open hardware company, he said:

When we tell people we’re an open hardware company, they ask how you protect the intellectual property. We don’t. We license it so anyone can use it. They can compete with us. They can undercut us. They say, ;you can’t build a business on that.’ Sure, it’s a challenge, but our model allows us to innovate faster than a closed model. That speed of innovation and our community are the barriers to entry. You can clone us, but you can’t clone our community. You can’t innovate as quickly as our community can. The community beats cloning every time. Continue reading The Open Hardware Summit: The Future of Manufacturing is Sharing

Turn Your Kids Into Linux Hackers At SCALE: The Next Generation

Image credit: SCALE: TNG

The Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE) celebrates its tenth year with a new feature, called SCALE: The Next Generation. The free and open source community of today is reaching out to their future leaders by hosting this mini-event for kids within the larger Linux conference.

Mimi Cafiero and Malakai Wade, eighth graders already with backgrounds in open source software, will kick off the event with their presentation on “Ultimate Randomness 2.0.” Kids can also learn about youth-friendly software like Tux Paint and how to get started working on open source software projects, even while they’re still young.

SCALE will be held January 20-22 at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel with more than 100 seminars and presentation sessions. SCALE: The Next Generation will be held Saturday, January 21, beginning at 10 a.m. Admission for SCALE: The Next Generation is free with an accompanying adult–you can register here. (And if you do decide to come by, both you and the kids are welcome at my newbie-friendly talk on Sunday, “The Pop Culture Guide to Open Source.”)

> See the SCALE: The Next Generation agenda
> See the main SCALE agenda

April Events Calendar–Where Will You Be?

Costumer at Costume-Con in 2009, by Flickr user Anna Fischer

Here’s what’s happening in the geek world this month. Got something to add? Let us know.

WonderCon, San Francisco, CA
April 1-3
It’s the 25th anniversary of this comics convention. Special guests include Sergio Aragonés, one of MAD magazine’s longest-running cartoonists; Berkeley Breathed of Bloom County; Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel; and NYT bestseller Robert Kirkman.

iPhone/iPad DevCon East, Boston, MA
April 4-6
Self-explanatory name–this one’s for the iP* developers.

O’Reilly Where 2.0 Conference, Santa Clara, CA
April 19-21
Calling location services geeks. Facebook Places or foursquare, Android or iPhone, here’s where to talk about location-aware technology.

Rethink Music, Boston, MA
April 27-29
This is a conference to bring together the industry–like the head of Warner Recorded Music–with technology and creative innovators, including Neil Gaiman, Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, and Damian Kulash of OK Go. Music geeks, this one’s for you.

Penguicon, Troy, MI
April 29-May 1
Half sci-fi, half open source software. Their FAQ includes things like, “Q: How can I make ice cream with liquid nitrogen at Penguicon?”–sounds like fun to me.

Costume-Con, Hasbrouck Heights, NJ
April 29-May 2
If your favorite parts of cons is costuming, Costume-Con, which changes location each year, is the place to be. If you go, post pictures.

FUDCon Recap and How You Can Get Involved In Open Source

FUDCon banner

I spent last weekend in Tempe, Arizona, at FUDCon, the Fedora Users and Developers Conference. For the less technically adventurous among our GeekMom friends, Fedora is a distribution of Linux, the open source operating system. If you’re not familiar, you can learn more at fedoraproject.org.

Post-session board gaming at FUDCon, photo CC-BY-SA by Máirín Duffy

A BarCamp-style unconference
FUDCon is an unconference, BarCamp-style. In this meeting method, attendees suggest sessions (they in general are also volunteering to lead them). They give quick pitches for their talks, and everyone votes on which sessions they’d like to go to. The winners are compiled into an agenda. You can get an idea of how the FUDCon sessions were put together through the conference wiki.

You might think at a conference with “developer” in the title that everything is very technically focused. But FUDCon has sessions even for beginners and contributors who couldn’t write a single line of code–projects like Fedora need designers, documentation writers, marketing, etc. So here are some highlights from a few of the non-technical sessions I dropped in on.

The anthropology of open source communities

There are certain talks that you see over and over again when you go to open source conferences, but this was (refreshingly) a new one on me. As a part of her anthropology master’s degree in 2009 and 2010, Diana Harrelson did a study on the Fedora community over the course of two releases. She was interested in the motivations of Fedora contributors, the foundations of an open source community, and in making recommendations on how to sustain and grow that community.

You can read more about the study in my short summary or in detail on Diana’s blog, where she writes about the anthropology of gaming, blogging, social networking, and online communities.

Sebastian Dziallas and Mel Chua, photo CC-BY-SA by Máirín Duffy

Open source in education

This session was a great example of how things can turn out in a unconference. Four people had thrown out ideas for education-related talks. In the final conference schedule, they were combined into one session. On the up side, you get to hear a lot in an hour. On the down side, someone who might have prepared to talk for 45 minutes now has to cram that content into 10-20. The good news is that they were all from people whose work is well documented online, making it easy to share with you:

OK, a little technical stuff too…

After all, it is largely a developer conference. A lot of great stuff is going on in the Fedora community right now, and if you’re of that inclination, I hope you’ll check some of these out:

A definite shortage of moms

This won’t be a surprise for any of you in the tech industry, but I think there’s a good chance that I was the only one at FUDCon who would qualify as a GeekMom, and it’s not for a lack of geeks. Out of nearly 200 attendees, I counted ten women.

A lot of other people in a lot of places have debated the lack of women in open source and in technology in general, so I won’t go down that rabbit hole here. But I will say that there’s definitely room for you in the community, and that you are welcome. You don’t have to know how to hack code. Software communities need non-programmers too. If you’re interested in getting involved, from any point of view, here are a few links to get you started: