From deep within the OTI-dome, we hope your celebration of American Thanksgiving was warm, enjoyable, and largely gluten-free. If you aren’t among the hordes who roused themselves from the tryptophan-induced haze early this morning to descend on the local Sears & Roebuck Co., but instead stayed in bed and fired up your laptop or information phone, boy have we got a treat for you.
Every year since beginning Overthinking It, we have published a gift guide, an opportunity for us to highlight our favorite junk and for you to support the site by using our Amazon.com affiliate link, which gives us a small kickback on anything you purchase at Amazon right after clicking.
(This magical link is available to you during other times of the year at the bottom of the sidebar on the OTI homepage, but the holidays are a special time to celebrate and support the websites we love.)
Let’s get started.
As ever, for those of you looking to start webistes, we can’t do better than to recommend our own web hosting provider A2 Hosting, an outfit in Michigan that has grown with us and seen us through some tough times, technologically speaking.
This isn’t the first time we’ve recommended a coffee maker in the Overthinking It gift guide. In fact, I bought a Bodum French Press based on Stokes’s endorsement a few years ago. This recommendation by no means supersedes the original; the French Press is still a killer way to make coffee. The AeroPress is a different way to make killer coffee. And as we all know, novelty is half the battle.
OK, it’s more than that. It’s far and away the best way to make a single serving of coffee in terms of convenience, taste, and lack of wasteful packaging. It’s also a cheap, easy, delightful, and legitimate way of becoming a coffee pedant. Any time the subject of coffee comes up, you can hang back until the right moment and let this bomb drop:
“Drip coffee is just not the right way to make coffee. You really should try the AeroPress.”
In most other fields, such a display of rank superiority—backed up by actual knowledge—would take hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition fees and years of training. In coffee-snobbery, it can be had for just $25.95, 10 seconds of stirring, and 30 seconds of gentle pressure.
(Credit for this recommendation goes to Wrather, who gave me my AeroPress as a gift…and changed my life forever. At least the part of my life that I spend drinking coffee.)
I did indeed give Mark his first Aeropress, a dangerous gateway drug leading to a life of chemex, pour-over, and french presses of such astonishing design, construction, and price that the mind boggles.
But the coffee maker is only as good as the coffee you put in it. If your area lacks an artisanal roastery, there are a bunch of mail order outfits ready to provide. The one I use is called Tonx, which is, I suppose, easier than calling it Nymphadora. They send you a package of delicious, buzzword-compliant, whole-bean coffee every two weeks, suitable for brewing in whatever ridiculous contraption you buy from Amazon. And like any good drug pushers, they give free samples. Check them out.
Perich: The Mass Effect Trilogy
The debate about whether or not video games constitute “art” continues to simmer in academic circles. But if you prefer to learn about a medium by experiencing it firsthand, the Mass Effect series is one of the better places to study. It captures both the narrative elements that make a game art and the gameplay elements that make a game fun, and it does this better than any big-studio game I’ve tried.
Some developers can build extensive worlds with detailed canons behind them, like the Elder Scrolls series, but have a hard time getting players to care about non-player characters. There’s also a lot of money going into producing film-like experiences (see the Call of Duty series, for instance), at the cost of making the gameplay experience repetitive. Mass Effect boasts not only a galaxy full of colorful characters, but a cover-shooter style of combat that challenges players without requiring the multiplayer reflexes of today’s caffeinated 12-year-olds.
Lots of folks have complained, loudly, about the ending of Mass Effect 3. I played through to the end just a few months ago — without any DLC content — and didn’t have any major issues with it. You might not like the ending as much as I did, but the narrative leading up to that ending trumps any RPG I’ve played in decades, and that includes other Bioware RPGs. So check it out for yourself.
Bonus Perich: Too Hard to Handle [Ed. Note: We put John up to this.]
Writing a genre novel, as someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about genre conventions, opens one’s eyes to the nature of art. Get close enough to the canvas and it’s all brushstrokes and stipple. Dig deep enough into a novel and it’s all formula, or at the very least artifice.
I wrote the first book in the Mara Cunningham series, Too Close to Miss, because I wanted to experiment with a reversal of some tropes of the thriller genre. What if it were a woman, instead of a man, who went on a lone quest for revenge? And what if it weren’t her murdered family she were avenging, but someone else’s murdered family? As I thought more about the kind of circumstances in which a protagonist might do that, and the kind of protagonist it would take to be in those circumstances, the character evolved naturally.
The more I invested Mara in her hometown—a Boston that owes more to The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Departed than my actual city, but a recognizable Boston nonetheless—the more I wanted to learn. Too Hard to Handle gives Mara something she sorely lacked in her first novel: depth, introspection, history. She’s still the impulsive slugger with a stubborn sense of justice, but now she has a past and a world outside her singleminded quest for justice.
So that’s a sneak peek into the writing process for you. If you liked the first book, check this one out.
Stokes: The Music of Claude Vivier
One of the things I miss about college is what I now think of as the mp3 challenge—you know, that thing where you’re sitting around with a bunch of your friends, and the discussion turns to music, and you end up taking turns turns playing songs off your laptops, everyone vying to find some obscure piece of musical brilliance that the rest of the room hasn’t heard yet. One reason I think I miss this so much is that I never got a chance to introduce people to the music of Claude Vivier (which I didn’t encounter myself until later).
Vivier was a Canadian composer of avant-garde microtonal music (i.e. his notes fall between the cracks of the piano keyboard). Maybe that sounds about as appealing as eating a pound of uncooked oatmeal, but I urge you to give him a shot. The music is utterly weird, unearthly, “challenging” in all the best senses of the word—and yet intensely passionate and lyrical, and not just passionate for classical music, or passionate in a refined sort of way, or passionate if you can delve beneath the surface. The music strikes like a bolt from the blue. And it sounds like nothing else in the world.
Unfortunately, although Vivier’s style is wildly original, he doesn’t offer a great deal of variety within that style. Most people probably don’t need two CDs of his music—but if you know people who think of themselves as music lovers, they definitely need one. Make sure it has the piece “Bouchara,” which for shows Vivier at his absolute best. If you can find it, I can personally vouch for the out-of-print Philips recording featuring Susan Narucki, if not, there’s a more recent version on Atma sung by Marie-Daniel Parent (which also gives you a slightly more varied set of other pieces). As of this writing, Amazon has exactly one copy of each available for a reasonable price, so act fast.
A final note: you can’t bring up Vivier without telling the tale of his creepily tragic death. Wikipedia reports:
On the night of 8 March Vivier was stabbed to death in his Paris apartment. His killer was a male prostitute the composer had met in a bar earlier that evening. On the worktable was the manuscript of Vivier’s final, uncompleted work, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?), a dramatised monologue in which Vivier describes a journey on the Metro during which he becomes attracted to a young man. The music breaks off abruptly following the line: “Then he removed a dagger from his jacket and stabbed me through the heart.”
See, it’s little details like that that make Vivier so good for MP3 challenge.
Also, because if I list something that will get us, at the absolute maximum, a measly two referral fees from Amazon, Wrather will straight up break my thumbs [Ed. Note: Damn straight. Try playing those microtonal notes between the cracks without any thumbs.]…
Bonus Stokes: Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
From the title, you’d think this is one of those “how to talk like a smart person” books that gives you a thumbnail synopsis of the entire Penguin Classics imprint. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s a provocative and at times profoundly moving meditation on reading, memory and psychological projection. It will also teach you how to talk about books you haven’t read, which is a genuinely useful skill. A book no true Overthinker should be without (but if you want to donate fifty cents to the tip jar and just tell us you bought it, I won’t reveal the fib.)
Fenzel: Nintendo Wii U
Look, this suggestion may seem outlandish. It’s certainly an order of magnitude more expensive than most things you’ll find on this list. And, frankly, I don’t have a great reason to pitch to you as to why this product has features or capabilities better than other products. I don’t even really know what it does, other than serve as a solid HD Netflix and Hulu Plus machine.
Well, that’s not entirely true—the Wii U more than any single piece of technology out there right now is designed to enable the media experience most common to people in developed nations today—which is to be splitting your attention between a big screen in front of you and a smaller touch screen in your hands. People aren’t quitting TV. They aren’t quitting console gaming. Tablets and smartphones aren’t replacing the traditional television—they’re enabling it. We’re in a multi-screen world. And while I haven’t seen a hugely convincing case for why the Wii U is the place to be for this right now, it has the capability to make this leap and embrace the way people are already dealing with media.
But that’s not why I’m recommending it here.
In the world of our forefathers and fivemothers, the world passed down to us through the filter of fond remembrance, where we keep the things of value and discard stuff like segregation as icky—in the “good old days”—we used to have a little thing in our lives called loyalty.
I’m a Nintendo loyalist. I’ve never owned a Playstation of Xbox of any variation. I play PC games, but Miyamoto and I have an understanding about that. The main thing is I’ve had the big major Nintendo consoles since way back in Christmas of 1987, when I first opened up the NES left by Santa.
I know there are other people out there. I know it’s not just me. I know the soul of the Gyromite Guy lives on in some of us, forever dodging the oscillating pylons of cynicism and despair, with or without the overrated and theatrical help of R.O.B.
And I ask you, if you stand as one of the faithful, and you want to take that leap and buy a Wii U because you feel the call in your heart that William Wallace cried out from the Battle of Stirling Bridge, or that Mega Man hollers from the top of his metal lungs every one of the tens of thousands of times his ceramic polymer robot boots first make contact with those ever-deadly spikes, stand with us. Buy it with us. We’ll be there with you. The aging and ardent brotherhood and sisterhood—a sacred order with a sacred trust.
And backwards compatibility and tons of Nintendo games available for download.
When your children come to ask you, “Daddy, Mommy, where were you during the Great War?”
You can tell them, “It’s a funny story. I was playing Assassins Creed III on my Wii U, so I didn’t even know it was happening for like 45 minutes.”
Belinkie: Newsies [Blu-ray]
For those of you who aren’t already fans, Newsies is a 1992 musical about the real-life newsboy strike of 1899. (NOTE: do not give this to any Tea Party-leaning relatives you have—it’s just a smudge pro-Union.) It’s got a great score by Alan Menken (who was then riding high from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast) and a great performance from 18-year-old Christian Bale (yes, he sings and dances) as “Cowboy” Kelly, King of the Newsies. The movie absolutely bombed at the box office, but was enough of a cult classic that it was adapted for Broadway earlier this year. (You may have spotted the cast in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.)
Anyway, this Blu-Ray has a commentary track with the writers, producers, and director Kenny Ortega (who had a recent return to glory with the High School Musical series). Sadly, no commentary track from Christian Bale using the Batman voice. YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY NOT READING MY LETTERS CAREFULLY ENOUGH, DISNEY.
Have I told you guys about my idea to update Newsies? It will be called Bloggers, and it will be about recent college grads slaving away in the digital content factories of Arianna Huffington and Nick Denton. But when the bosses raise the minimum posts per day from 19 to 20, the bloggers go on a Snark Strike. Where are people going to get their lists of 10 Cats That Look Like Honey Boo Boo?
Remember, headlines don’t get clicks, bloggers get clicks!
If you’re in the mood to subject yourself to a level of scrutiny you don’t deserve (though come on, give yourself a break, you totally deserve it!), you’re going to need to generate a dataset. You can’t pontificate upon what you haven’t seen—though I suppose many dozens of episodes of the Overthinking It Podcast, and one gift recommendation above, exist which disprove that postulate—and you can’t optimize what you can’t track.
I got into the world of wearable trackers because I’m a crappy sleeper, via the sleep cycle alarm clock, and the wristband from the now-defunct WakeMate, both of which wake you around a designated time, when their motion sensors detect you are closest to waking up anyway. The FitBit doesn’t optimize the time it wakes you up, but it does, unlike my previous two devices, do it silently, by making your wristband buzz, allowing your partner to sleep peacefully while you get up and check Overthinking It on your laptop.
And it does so much more. It comes with a sturdy little clip so that you can clip it to an article of clothing. The idea is that you wear it. It’s a pedometer, so it tracks steps; it has an altimeter, so it tracks stairs you climb; it estimates the calories you’ve burned during a day; it syncs with a web service and phone apps that allow you track all of these values over time; and it sends you encouraging, irony free messages via its tiny screen every time you pick it up. YOUCANDOIT!
If you’re like me, you spend a good portion of your time sitting on your behind and staring at a screen. Here’s a list of the screens I’ve stared at this year, in, I think, descending order by size:
- Real IMAX
- Crappy Fake IMAX
- Regular Movie Screen
- Conference Room Projection
- Ebook Reader
- (Have I left any out? Fill in the list in the comments.)
That’s a lot of time mouth breathing and drooling slack-jawed in front of flashing lights. And, turns out, sitting literally kills you. So get up. Take a walk. Counting your steps makes it a fun game. GOFORIT!
That’s it for this year! Happy shopping… and leave your own gift ideas in the comments!