013: Not Another Gift Guide

Yes another gift guide

It’s that time of year when everyone puts out a gift guide. I thought I’d try my hand this year. And you know what? It’s harder than I thought. What’s the right number of gifts? Do I have to suggest something for all ages? Do I categorize them? Is it really a gift guide if I don’t recommend a book and a puzzle? I have a hard enough time getting gifts for my own family; who am I to recommend what you should get yours?

You know what? Let’s just dive in. We’ll go in no particular order.

Brawny Tear-A-Square Paper Towels

I know what you’re thinking: What the hell kind of gift is that to start off with? And you’re not wrong. But honestly, I’ve been trying to find a moment to tell you about these. Now I have an excuse.

This is the biggest revolution in paper towels since Bounty Select-A-Size. Those are the paper towels that are perforated at smaller intervals so you can choose if you want a big or small paper towel. That means less waste and your paper towel roll lasts longer.

But that’s never been good enough for me. Sometimes I want an even smaller paper towel. Maybe I just need to wipe a utensil. So I’m the kind of person who actually tears a corner off the roll to avoid wasting a whole sheet, leaving the roll looking like some animal lives in the kitchen. Brawny Tear-A-Square is for people like me.

The entire role is perforated down the center. So that means you can select an even smaller paper towel off the roll, in a civilized manner.

So, okay. Maybe paper towels are kind of a crappy gift. But that’s only if you give it to someone else. Consider this a gift for yourself.

LEGO Lesson From a “LEGO Masters” Star

There’s a platform called Outschool that’s like the Amazon Marketplace of online classes for kids. Anyone can call themselves a teacher and start a class. They advertised pretty heavily during the summer when parents were desperate to entertain their kids in absence of camp, and I was deeply skeptical. But the prices were reasonable so we gave a few classes a try. And they worked out rather well!

Another thing we enjoyed as a family in the early days of the pandemic was the TV show LEGO Masters, hosted by Will Arnett, where teams of creative LEGO* builders competed in LEGO challenges.

Now Jessica Ragzy Ewud, one of the contestants my kids liked from LEGO Masters, is teaching classes on Outschool. An hour-long class is $30, but it doesn’t add to the clutter of toys, and I know my kids are going to love this.

I’m just not sure how to wrap it.

*I once wrote about LEGO bricks on the internet without writing LEGO in all caps, and committed the sin of pluralizing it as Legos. The LEGO nerds came out in force to tell me that LEGO is the company and the product is LEGO bricks. You should use LEGO like an adjective, not a noun. Okee-dokee.

The Razor Crest LEGO Set

Sometimes the satisfaction of making a well designed LEGO set beats the feeling of making your own creative LEGO project. And if your household is as obsessed with The Mandalorian as mine is, this is the set to get.

It even comes with a tiny Baby Grogu (if we must) and an IG-11 so you can do your Taika Waititi impression while you play.

Simply Piano (Subscription)

Right before the pandemic, we bought a piano. The problem is, I don’t know how to play, and I couldn’t have a piano teacher come over to the house anymore. So I tried a few different self-paced piano courses, and I landed on Simply Piano as the clear winner for me. It runs on iOS or Android and listens to you play. It gamifies learning, turning lessons into something like Guitar Hero.

Although the lessons are presented like a game, there is also a huge library of traditionally-styled sheet music with different skill level arrangements and feedback (caveat: that library is currently iPad-only).

My wife is a classically trained musician who went to Juilliard. So she was quick to point out some problems with this style of learning. For one thing, it teaches you to read music but teaches you nothing about musicality (how pleasantly you play, or how much feeling you add to a piece). It can’t give you feedback on your posture to prevent bad habits from becoming ingrained. And it doesn’t go into music theory, notation, or some other things a proper instructor would teach you. So many users supplement with other courses on those subjects or personal coaching.

But even with those caveats, it’s a rewarding experience. Now the piano has become my happy place during the pandemic.

Marvel Unlimited and DC Universe Infinite (Subscriptions)

These services are most easily described as Netflix for comic books, giving you access to tens of thousands of comics for a few dollars a month.

I was a big Marvel comic reader in adolescence, but not so much in adulthood. I missed out on decades of stories. Once I learned about Marvel Unlimited, it was an easy choice to subscribe*. I enjoyed catching up on my favorite titles, and re-reading childhood favorites. They currently have around 28,000 issues going back to Marvel’s beginning, and they add more every month. Titles appear in the app three months after their print release.

I’ve eagerly waited for a similar service from DC Comics. I wasn’t much of a DC reader growing up, but I know they had some talented writers, and almost all of their stories would be new to me. In January they’re finally releasing what I want: a DC equivalent of Marvel Unlimited. They call it DC Universe Infinite and it will launch with 24,000 issues and a six month lag time behind print releases. But you can subscribe now.

*Per the FTC rules, I think I’m supposed to disclose that my wife worked at Marvel, where she spearheaded the redesign of Marvel’s online presence including Marvel Unlimited, and so I used it for free for a while. Yes, my wife went to Juilliard and worked at Marvel. She’s much cooler than I am. And I’m a paying Marvel Unlimited subscriber now.

Garmin Vivofit, Jr.

Sure, everyone is recommending the Apple Watch. But I’m recommending the Garmin Vivofit, Jr. — Not for you, but for a kid in your life. This won’t track their heart rate, but it does count their steps and activity, sets daily goals, lets them set alarms and timers, etc. And it syncs with an app that lets them view their activity level, progress, and compete with their friends who also have Garmin devices.

But the best part is that they don’t have to charge it frequently like they would with a proper smart watch. The battery lasts for a year. So they’re not going to forget to charge it and lose interest.

They come in different styles, and they’re priced how a kid’s watch should be priced.

Apple Watch

Of course, I’m also recommending the Apple Watch. You’re a grown up and that Garmin watch isn’t for you. This is for you. I love mine. You’ll love yours.

They come in different styles, and they’re priced how a grown up’s watch should be priced.

Apple Arcade (Subscription)

While we’re on the topic, let’s just get my other Apple recommendation over with. I say that because recommending something from Apple seems so obvious. What’s next, I’m going to recommend Netflix? No. (Not that I don’t.) But Apple Arcade brings me a special kind of joy. Not every game is the right fit for me, but overall I like the emphasis on artful games with good stories. And I especially like the ad-free experience with no in-game purchases. That combination makes it worth the money.

KiwiCo Crates (Subscription)

There are a lot of monthly crate services out there, but we especially like this one that delivers an age-appropriate STEM project each month. Every time a new box comes, I marvel at the creativity that goes into making the kit. The instructions are clear and well designed, the product is clever, the supplemental reading materials are well written and add another level of enjoyment.

My kids love making their kits, and play with them long after they’ve been built.

Boxing Gloves and Punching Bag (for kids)

My seven year old is a bit of a brute. He’s got a lot of energy and punches couch pillows for fun. Finally, we realized we could direct that energy away from our furniture and maybe get him some exercise at the same time.

So we got him some quality boxing gloves and a kid-sized punching/kicking bag on a stand (forget those inflatable punching bags that take so long to get back up again that you can’t really build any sort of rhythm). Now when his energy seems ready to burst, we tell him to go punch his bag. It seems to help.

Bulbdial Clock

Invented by me, and developed by Evil Mad Science Laboratories, the Bulbdial Clock is a unique gift that uses shadows as clock hands to show the time. It’s available in several different colors and styles. It comes as a kit to be assembled by someone with basic soldering skills, and includes very easy-to-follow instructions. A great STEM gift for a teenager.

And The Rest:

If I make this email much longer, it gets cut off for Gmail users (who knew?). So here’s a short list of a couple remaining things on my Gift Guide:

  • MakeDo Cardboard Construction Toolkit - If your kid likes to play with empty cardboard boxes, this set adds a bit of engineering to their creative play.

  • Orbi or Eero or other mesh network for your home - If you have any Wi-Fi dead spots, stop fussing and just get one of these already. You’ll wonder why you didn’t before. (It still counts as a gift if you get it for yourself)

  • AirPods - These are refreshingly easy to use compared to other bluetooth earbuds. The Pro versions add great features, but I’m not made of money.

  • Logitech iPad Keyboard Case - I tried a lot of keyboard cases for my standard (non-Pro) iPad, starting with the cheap ones, and this is the clear winner. It turns itself on and off when needed. It has great key-feel. And instead of recharging it, you just… don’t think about batteries at all. Somehow after using mine for years, I still have never replaced the batteries. It’s not back-lit, but you don’t need that feature as much as you think you do. [Mine is an older model, but it doesn’t appear to have changed much].

So how did I do? Did I give you any ideas? Did you find something for someone on your list? Give me feedback, and maybe I’ll do this again next year.

See you next week!


Oh, and the FTC also wants me to tell you that some links above are affiliate links.