A Nerd’s Quintessential Guide to Gift Buying

Ah yes, the season of giving is upon us. Whether you give someone a 12-month Xbox LIVE gold subscription, or they give you a headshot from across the map in Battlefield 3, the sentiment is the same. The challenge comes from picking the right gift for the right person. Do I get my Dad a 4-port USB hub shaped like Darth Vader’s head, or the The Lord of the Rings Collector’s Chess Set? Buying gifts for my family from sites like ThinkGeek or Jinx would certainly show them some nerdy love, but are there any other options? Do I have to get them the same TARDIS mug that every other geek-son thoughtfully placed under the tree?

With many people shunning the 9 to 5 lifestyle for a more crafty one, there are a veritable plethora of gifting options for you to choose from. Is the woman in your life a fan of Adventure Time and living in a cold weather climate? Get her a Jake the Dog hand-knit hat from someone’s Etsy store. Is your brother a fan of Frank Miller style art? Contact one of the many talented artists at Deviant Art to see if you can get a commission done. Is your sister-in-law bent on world domination through robot apocalypse? The geeks over at Sparkfun have you covered.

But what about the younger geeks in our lives? Should I get them the latest thing-a-ma-toy that all the advertisements on Nicktoons are telling their impressionable minds that they need, or do I gift them with something greater? In my opinion, a present for a child should be something that they are going to not only enjoy playing with, but will be useful to them as well. And the trifecta would be getting a gift that is fun, useful, AND educational. The fact of the matter is that kids crave knowledge. They want to know what everything is, and how it works. The main problem is that they will never tell you that they want an educational toy because all of their friends are pwning n00bs in Call of Duty or texting all hours of the night on the latest iPhone that they just HAD to have.

Don’t fret, parents, there are options.The geniuses over at Thames & Kosmos have created an entire set of kits that each focus on specific fields of science. Everything from Astronomy to Paleontology. They even have a section of alternative energy lab kits for the more eco-friendly kid. Is your child interested in robots (and really, who wasn’t when they were a kid)? Robot Shop has a robotics kit to fit every knowledge level, interest, and pocket-book. Remember, it is your right as a parent to get gifts for your kids that you will want to play with as well.

Is your significant other incredibly hard to shop for (if you didn’t want the 2013 Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar then you should have spoken up when I asked what you wanted for Christmas) then dig deep into the essence of the season. The holidays are generally pretty cold in the Northern hemisphere, so maybe designing the perfect cuddle-date may be just the thing to put a smile on their face. Curl up together on your giant Sumo Lounge ultimate fur chair, under a super comfy Pac-Man fleece blanket, sip some peppermint hot cocoa from your Star Wars Imperial logo mug, while watching the The Dark Knight trilogy on Blu-ray. It will be a night to remember for years to come. I promise that they will be bragging to their co-workers about you.

‘Tis the season to brave packed parking lots and long lines and shell out for that “perfect gift” for your special someone. The good news is that you don’t have to face this trial alone. Maybe take some tips from this guide, or let it inspire you to find a present from a previously unknown store. In the end, the old adage is true; It really is the thought that counts. So be sure to think of your loved ones and pick a gift that they will treasure forever.

Post-apocalyptic career path: Baker

I love to cook.  I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. You see, in my family, it is the men who you will find making dinner or preparing snacks. During family reunions, we gather around the grill and take turns tending to the meat, or you will see a line of us in the kitchen washing and cutting vegetables. We are at home around food. It is the domain which we survey atop a mountain of pride and love.

For all of the culinary lands I have crossed though, there is one corner that I spent years not daring to tread; the dreaded bakery. You see, cooking is art. With flares of spices, and bold statements made with the perfect sauce, each dish is a direct reflection of the emotions that the chef put into it. If you cook angry, your food will end up tasting harsh. Cooking without passion leaves your dish bland and tasteless. You must love your food, and bestow passion to your dish.

Why, then, was baking such a terrifying place for me to go? Well, where cooking is art and emotion, baking is science and calculation. I love science. In the kitchen, however, if I have to worry about not getting a measurement precisely correct or else the dish will be ruined, then I may not be able to leave the same level of warmth into it. When I cook a meal, I can feel my way through it. I can make my food POP with flavor simply by adding a few spices. If a sauce needs to be more rich and bold, I will add wine and reduce it a few times. I will add layer upon layer of emotion and flavor into a dish, each as bold as the brushstroke of a master artisan. With baking, if I use a tablespoon of salt instead of a teaspoon, then my bread loaf might not rise at all and the entire dish will be ruined. I think it’s safe to say that, for the longest time, baking scared the hell out of me.

Should I let myself be conquered by self doubt? NAY! Which is exactly why, last year, I decided that I was going to learn how to bake a loaf of bread. It became a “thing” for me. I figured that all people should know how to bake a loaf of bread before they die. I began my journey where every self-respecting geek should: The internet. What I found made me facepalm. I had thought that bakers were magicians; weaving complex spells with incomprehensible ingredients to concoct the perfect loaf of pure ambrosia. As it turns out, nearly every loaf of bread is merely a combination of 4 ingredients; Flour, water, yeast, sugar. The curtain had been pulled back. Suddenly, the task of baking my very own loaf of bread was much less daunting.

Well then, it was time for me to get to work. I found a simple bread recipe online and gathered my materials.I followed directions, mixed, folded, floured, and scored. When my loaf was in the oven, an enchanting smell began to emanate from the kitchen. The smell of baking bread is quite intoxicating. That was the first indication I was on the right track. Then, at the appointed time, I pulled my bread from the oven. What I saw warmed my heart.

I had done it. Now that I had the knowledge I would ALWAYS be able to do it. Since that day I have made many loaves of bread. I have constructed large round loaves to compliment a huge pot of my friend’s homemade gumbo, and I most recently rolled a French loaf as a side dish for grilled fish and vegetables. When the zombie apocalypse comes, while everyone else in my survival camp is forging weapons and securing the perimeter, I will be baking away in my kitchen. I will make sure that people are fed, and with as truly simple as bread is to make, they will have plenty of energy to fight off the undead horde.

Fueling the need for change

You there! Dear reader! Go wipe yourself with a fist full of leaves. No? How about you drill a hole into the side of your head to release the demons when you get a headache? Still no? What’s the matter with you? Oh, I see. When technology progresses and you garner a better understanding of the surrounding world, you get presented with more attractive options to address everyday tasks. So why on earth are you still driving a gas-guzzling metal behemoth? If your answer is even remotely related to “that’s just the way it is because that’s the way it has always been”, then you are doing it wrong.

In 1884, British engineer Edward Butler developed the world’s first petroleum fueled internal combustion engine. To give you an idea of exactly how long ago that was, I will list for you other developments from that year.

1) Construction on the Washington Monument in D.C. is completed.
2) Mark Twain publishes “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.
3) Local anaesthesia is invented by Karl Koller.

As you see, not exactly a recent development. Why then are we still using essentially the same technology now that we did more than 100 years ago? Is it for lack on invention, or could it possibly be the most efficient way to power our vehicles? No, as with any other industry, decisions are made on the financial bottom line. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for a company making an honest dollar. However, when there are industries feverishly suppressing their competition to hinder progress toward cheaper energy, there is nothing honest about it.

I am not going to turn this entire article into a “Big Oil is evil!” piece. There are many points of view to that particular topic, and we could spend years discussing it. What I am here to talk about today is the fact there really are more alternatives that people even know, and they get shoved aside because it is “easier” to follow the normal way of doing things. In this case, “easy” is lazy. Easy is dangerous.

At this point there have been many alternatives to petroleum brought to the public’s attention. Options like hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels. However, there is something different out there. Something so alien and, let’s be frank here for a moment, something so downright cool that it should be brought to everyone’s attention. To sweeten the deal, engineers at Cadillac have already drawn up a virtual prototype of an engine that will use it. I am talking about the World Thorium Fuel concept (Yes, I am aware that the acronym is WTF).

I will leave all of the engineering speak up to people much smarter than me, however the simple version is that there is a thorium-based nuclear reactor in the car. Before you go off and report me to Homeland Security, I want to let you know a few things about the thorium fuel design that the nice people over at Cadillac have in mind. First off, the radiation that the thorium they have in mind is so weak that it could be safely shielded with store bought aluminum foil. Next, unlike other radioactive material you may be more familiar with like uranium and plutonium, thorium is extremely hard to weaponize. Thorium is also much more abundant than other rare earth metals. Since very little thorium is needed per car, there is plenty to go around without making it cost prohibitive.

Now I am going to drop a little education on your faces! The World Thorium Fuel concept engine would work like this: Thorium is excited with a laser (I have always wanted a car with a laser in it). The excited thorium heats up water in an enclosed system. Heated water makes steam. That spins a turbine, which then powers the car’s electrical systems. Engineers at Cadillac estimate that a WTF fueled vehicle could run for approximately 100 years without need for re-fueling. Considering families spend $300 per month on petroleum-based fuel for their cars now, the savings at the pump alone are enough to make most people wonder “what if”.

Listen, I am not saying that we all need to drive around with nuclear reactors in our trunks. I just want to make sure that if you are still driving around a conventional internal combustion engine car, and not exploring your alternatives, it’s not because you think there aren’t any other options out there. The world is a wonderful place filled with highly inventive people. We are living in a time when we can shrug off the yoke of convention easier than ever before, and embrace change. Step into the future with me. It has that new car smell.

I will survive

Fiction is rich with post-apocalyptic landscapes; Zombies, robots, aliens, “The Bomb” (that one is an oldie but a goodie). But how feasible are those scenarios really? Well, there is so much mutually assured destruction in the world that any nation who decided to launch a nuclear weapon at another country would end up a smoldering crater in less than 20 minutes. Zombies and aliens make for entertaining TV, however lack a certain realism (let’s hope). All that being said, there are still several real world things that could possibly wipe out a huge chunk of humanity and have us living in caves for generations.

PandemicViral pandemic: OK, first off, yes. There have been plenty of movies, TV shows, and video games which have depicted “end of the world” scenarios that have been sparked by the release of some deadly pathogen. The reason I am including it on this list is that the possibility of a virus outbreak decimating the human population is so very real. In 2011, virologist Ron Fouchier was playing around with  the H5N1 virus (bird flu) in order to find out exactly how potent (deadly) it could be made . What he discovered is that with minimal effort by geneticist standards you could make the disease communicable in ferrets (previous research has shown that any strains of influenza that can pass between ferrets can also pass between humans). Then, it did something completely unexpected. H5N1  began to mutate and evolve all on its own. The virus made itself airborne in order to spread faster. Initial projections show that  before we could get ahead of the outbreak at our current state of readiness, half the human population would be dead.

Food Shortage

Global food shortage: Black, white, old, young, Catholic, or Buddhist. A few things are the common threads that tie us all together. High on the list is food. We all have to eat. Earlier in the year, the World Bank (the international organization whose main objective is to try to feed those in the world who can’t feed themselves) reported that due to the massive drought cycle Earth is in, as well as rising fuel costs, it is much more expensive for food producers to grow, harvest, and deliver the grains needed to sustain the poorest populations on this planet. The short version: If it’s harder to provide food, then more people will go hungry. Hungry people become desperate. Desperate people become angry. Angry people gather together. Food shortages have started wars. The “have-nots” blame the “haves”. After all there is nothing so basic as to fill your belly, and it is easy to be bitter against those who do so on a regular basis while your children die of starvation. Those who do have enough to eat will fight rooted in the primal instinct to protect the family and homestead. International food production and distribution is currently sitting on a razor’s edge. All it would take to push us past the tipping point is for an additional factor to step in and cut our already depleted food storage down. Enter Ug99. Otherwise known as “Stem Rust Fungus“. This bad boy is known to kill 100% of infected crops, and specifically attacks the resistance genes inherent in wheat plants. If enough of the world’s wheat crop gets infected then we will not have enough food to feed the rich AND the poor. Guess whose plate will be filled, and who will die of hunger. The next World War may not be fought over land, but over the price of a pound of rice. Grain will be worth its weight in platinum. Many have been killed for less.

Supervolcano: Alright. I know exactly how much like a SyFy special this sounds. However, as far-fetched as it may seem, lurking below the very ground we walk on is a powder keg of cataclysmic proportions. Able to project over 240 cubic miles of molten earth from the eruption, a supervolcano could devastate an entire continent. First, the initial deaths would come from the resulting earthquakes powerful enough to turn entire cities on their heads. Next comes clouds of toxic ash that will cover whole hemispheres. Anyone who is exposed for too long will either die out in the open, or from complications due to respiratory failure later in life. The stifling layer of poisonous dust and fumes will wipe out crops vital to the world’s food needs. It will also blot out the sun for years causing first an ice age, then followed up by global warming. As a race of people, we just don’t have an infrastructure in place to support survivors from an event of that magnitude. Civil unrest, looting, riots, militarization, and then war. Once again, mankind becomes its own worst enemy. The real kicker to this all is that it’s not a matter of “if” a supervolcano will blow, but “when”. In several places on earth, massive pockets of magma are brewing away beneath the thin crust of the plant. They are building pressure over the course thousands of years, until one day the energy built will be greater than the resistance of the earth above, and quite literally all hell will break loose.

The next time you think that events severe enough to wipe out a majority of our planet are relegated to works of fiction, just remember this: This planet has been around long before we were ever here, and will be around long after we are dead. We are nothing but momentary passengers on a massive rock hurtling through space. It could all be gone in the blink of an eye, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. So please, go hug a loved one. Start a hobby. Be bold. Learn a new skill. Laugh, love, and live each day as if it were your last. It very well could be.

You have the (alleged) right to remain silent.

We’ve all heard a reading of the Miranda warning before. It was created to protect citizens from self-incrimination. They also help to ensure that any testimony given is preserved so it may be admissible in court. As such, if you don’t want to admit to any wrongdoing, just keep your mouth shut. The evidence will speak for itself, and if you have done nothing wrong then there is (normally) nothing to fear. You don’t have to tell police where you were, what you were doing, or who you were with. As such, we take certain freedoms for granted, but maybe we shouldn’t.

If a stranger on the street comes up to you and asks where you have been, your first instinct is more than likely to tell them to mind their own business. Rightfully so. However, when the government wants to know where you have been, all they have to do is subpoena your cell phone provider and they will have access to REAL-TIME GPS data regarding your location. Think about that for a moment. The United States Government can legally use your phone as a tracking device. All without a warrant.

Hey, would you let me peek into your backyard at any time? Of course not. That would be a HUGE invasion of your privacy. However, if you government wants to look over your fence all they’ll need to do is use one of the many drones that fly out from any of the 64 drone bases on US soil. To protect our liberties, they first must violate them? Does that make as little sense to you as it does to me?

What happens when you are betrayed by those you hold most dear? I am talking about any device you have with a hard drive. That includes your computers, phones, and tablets.  Those digital devices tether you to your contact information, personal photos, GPS data, email, and so much more. According to some judges, that information is up for grabs to any law enforcement agency who wants it, and if you refuse to give them access to them you may be held in contempt of court.

I love technology. It just seems that these days the same tech I adore is being used to silently subjugate an entire people. We have grown complacent with how much we share of ourselves online. Smart phones are our lifeline to the world around us, and we just take for granted the thin veil of privacy we are afforded. The very privacy that can be pierced with a piece of paper and a judge’s signature. Without you ever saying a single word, your electronic life stands ready to spill the beans on where you have been, who you have been with, and what you were doing while there. Where is my phone’s right to remain silent? That appears to be an issue for the courts to decide, and if recent rulings are any indication the future of our digital security looks pretty bleak.

Remember this: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t listening. Stay vigilant my friends.

Why election season agitates me.

I love this country. As much as I wish there were no countries, and we could step into the future as a unified planet, if we have to have countries we might as well make ours a good one to live in. That means having amazing leadership. To make sure that no one person has too much power for too long we have leadership term limits. Every four years we, as a country, get to decide who we want to lead us into a brighter tomorrow. Now, any 4th grade Social Studies class can tell you what I just did (hopefully anyway, given the current state of public education in this country). Unfortunately, those children are also being brought up learning a dangerous way to decide who will lead us.

It started very early for me. The year was 1984 when I was but six years old. The teacher in my class wanted us to learn all about the election process. So we were given sheets of paper with 3 flavors of ice cream listed on them; Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. We had to vote on what would be our favorite flavor, and the teacher would give us all a scoop of the ice cream with the most tallied votes. Simple as that. Since we were just kids, we didn’t have to think about Vanilla’s views on gay marriage, if Chocolate was in favor of gun control, or what was Strawberry’s take on nuclear proliferation. We just chose the flavor that tasted the best to us, and voted accordingly. The problem is that a lot of adults in this country still vote the same way.

Too many times, the presidential candidates put so much focus of their election campaigns into who they are as people. Presidential candidate X scored 900 on their SAT’s while candidate Y has been divorced 3 times. Who gives a shit? I don’t care if my future President once blew a line of coke off a hooker’s ass for his 18th birthday. As long as they share the same views on issues that I do, they will have my vote. I say this because the President of the United States is not a person, but a symbol; like Batman. And just like Batman, the Presidential position can be filled by a flawed man. However, in the office, and as the symbol, they must  be prepared to do the things that must be done that ordinary citizens are ill-equipped to handle.

I believe that as long as a person is willing to put themselves into the line of fire to protect my values it doesn’t matter if they are gay, straight, or extra-terrestrial. I feel that the budget for public education should rival that of national defense, and cost absolutely nothing to citizens. If someone takes a life, then they have proven themselves to be a danger to those around them and should be put down. It should not be our role to act as an international police force. No one has a right to tell another person what they can do with their own body. These are my views. The problem with the voting process is that my beliefs cross partisan values, and as long as we are asked to vote for what party we want as opposed to that values we believe in, I will never get the President I want.

So when November rolls around this year, and you are asked to choose our next President of the United States, please remember that you are not voting to put a man in a chair. You are voting to create a symbol that represents your views, and should have your best interests at heart. I leave you with these two questions:

What are your beliefs? Is there any candidate who fundamentally shares those beliefs?

Also, my favorite flavor of ice cream was strawberry.

Look to the stars. Search for truth.

Last night (8/5/2012) at approximately 10:30 PM PST, a 2000 lb remote science lab aptly named “Curiosity” successfully landed in Gale Crater on Mars after a 350 million mile journey that started on Earth 8 and a half months ago. The landing itself was made up of a combination of steps that have never been attempted before. There were literally thousands of failure scenarios. Any number of things could have gone wrong, and the entire mission would have been for naught. Yet Curiosity fought on through adversity and against the odds, and in the end became our best chance of finding essential building blocks that will confirm whether human life on Mars will be possible.

As these epic events unfolded, I watched a live stream of the NASA JPL Mission Control room. The men and women on the Curiosity cruise and landing teams were buzzing with excitement. As the rover made its decent, these stalwart innovators waited with bated breath. Upon successful touchdown, the room erupted with overflowing enthusiasm and joy. When the first pictures of the landing site were beamed to the control room, there was nary a dry eye in the house. This mission was a labor of love. There was blood, sweat, and tears that had gone into its construction and delivery and in the end there was an overwhelming sense of pride.

And there I was, sitting at home watching the entire celebration. My computer screen was segmented into 3 major parts: Live stream of Mission Control, a real-time computer simulation of the landing, and Tweetdeck so I could share my elation with the rest of the world. Make no mistake; this is an achievement to be shared with all people. The search for life on Mars is an endeavor that will benefit all mankind, regardless of creed or nationality.

As the excitement wound down, and I prepared for bed, my thoughts went to my Father. When I was a mere child, he taught me to imagine a greater world. He pointed my eyes to the heavens, and encouraged me to reach for the stars. I was 11 years old when my Dad took me to the Ames Research Center in California. There, I learned all about aerodynamics, and how objects move through space. I wanted to go to Space Camp more than anything in the world that year, but he could not afford to send me there. However, he did buy me a telescope. That way I could come a little closer to reaching the stars. My Dad incubated my love of space and, as such, I am a better person for it.

I fully intend to be the same Father to my children. Fueling their minds and fostering their imaginations. Maybe one day they will be the ones cheering in the mission control room for the first manned mission to Mars or beyond. Or maybe they will even be the intrepid explorers who travel to other planets themselves.  And here I will be, on Earth with swelled pride. My children: Driven by imagination, and eager for exploration. I, for one, could not imagine a better future.