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.

[Read more…]

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.