Category: holiday gift guides

Gifts that Keep on Giving

As I’ve been thinking over my latest decluttering efforts, I’ve also been reflecting back on the whole practice of gift-giving. Specifically, the tradition that birthdays and Christmas are celebrated with gifts, and that you have to give a “really cool gift” to ensure the birthday and Christmas is successful.

I’m not against giving gifts at all, but I’m thinking I’m becoming more and more against giving something just to have given something. Each year, people ask me what I want for my birthday and Christmas. Each year, I ask people what they want for their birthday and Christmas. And a fair bit of the time, I think we end up thinking a lot about what we want, even though we don’t really want anything (let alone *need* anything). But we still ask for things, just to make the gift giving easier.

Giving money is okay. Yes, it’s not something that takes a long time to come up with, but it’s definitely better than giving a thing that won’t be used.

Of course, in an ideal world, you find a gift that’s perfect. That ends up getting used over and over again. That’s what this blog post is about. I decided to think back over the gifts I’ve gotten and given to see the ones that have been the best of the best.

Blendtec Blender: My family uses this high-end blender at least three or four times a day. There’s a counter on it that tracks how many uses it’s had, and ours is up to around 2,000. It makes smoothies, hummus, milk shakes, and more. It doesn’t have sharp blades, so you don’t have to worry about cutting yourself, and the end results are smooth and wonderful. When this breaks, I’ll replace it in a heartbeat.

Boot/Glove Dryer: If your family is outdoors in the snow a lot, this is a must. For my family of skiers, this gets used constantly in the winter. It lets you properly dry out boots and gloves without having to remove linings or wait for hours. Denisa frequently talks about how handy it is. Score!

Nintendo Switch: It’s gone with us to Europe. It sees constant use in the house by my 14 year old, 10 year old, and 5 year old. It’s family-friendly and easy to use. Games that are favorites are Breath of the Wild, MarioKart, Smash, Rabbids, Mario Odyssey. The Pro controllers were also great gifts for it, as was the carrying case and screen protector.

Oculus Rift: Yes, you need a high-end computer to be able to use it, but this has been a continued highlight for Tomas and DC at times as well. It’s a hit at parties, and the computer itself has come in very handy as well. It was expensive, but I’ve never regretted the purchase.

Board games are big at my house, but not all board games end up being played. Ones that have been played many times by my family in the last few years include Splendor, Seven Wonders, Sushi Go, Hanabi, Azul, Kingdom Builder, Seven Wonders Duel, and Codenames.

Kindle Fires: I bought the cheaper ones for the kids when they were on sale. In hindsight, I wish I had paid a bit more money for the slightly higher end ones. They’re inexpensive (relatively), and it lets each kid have their own device. Way less arguing, and they get used constantly. (Except when they inevitably run out of batteries . . .)

Amazon Echo and Dot: I wasn’t sold on these when I first read about them, but we use them all the time in our house now. Even the five year old loves them. We’ve got them hooked up to work as an intercom system in our house as well, which is really useful. (Even if you can’t help wondering who might be listening to you from time to time . . .)

Stove Fan: It runs even when there’s no power, and it does a great job distributing the heat more evenly throughout the room and house. I got the higher end one, and I’m glad I did. I would recommend these to anyone who uses a wood stove.

Snow Blower: For that matter, I have no idea what I’d do without a snow blower. (Actually, I do. I remember the first year in Maine without one. It wasn’t pretty.) If you live in a place with a lot of snow, and you don’t want to pay or rely on someone to plow your driveway, a high quality snow blower is a must. My Honda has been dependable and a life saver, year after year. 11 years and counting now! (For that matter, don’t forget a roof rake, either.)

High-end Rechargeable Batteries: I love my Eneloops. I bought a few to see if I’d like them and they were reliable. I’ve bought a ton more. These are so much better than the old style that you never could rely on to actually be charged.

Home Theater Projector: It’s been a bit since I got mine, so I’m not sure what the latest and greatest is these days, but getting a projector (and an actual screen) has been so much easier than I thought it would be, and I love mine. When it comes to controlling the system, my favorite remote is definitely the Harmony. It’s basic, and it takes some setting up to work, but it controls just about anything, and you don’t even need to point the controller in the right direction.

Apple TV: Who needs cable when you’ve got Apple TV? I especially love how it feeds in my pictures for a screen saver, so we can see all our favorite pics from over the years whenever there’s a lull in using the TV.

Electronic Sketch Pad: One of the five year old’s favorite things. Great for quiet time.

And of course, my favorite mop. (Read my review here.)

That rounds it out. Having gone through all my Amazon purchases for the last few years, it’s a bit depressing how many things are on there that were just so-so. I can definitely do better in not buying as much stuff. (It’s saved money, and it’s tax free!) But when you find just the right present, that’s a wonderful thing. Any gifts that you’ve gotten over the years that have been great?


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Video Game Review: Rocksmith 2014 Edition

I’ve extolled the wonders of Rocksmith before on my blog. It’s this absolutely fantastic video game that has the side effect of teaching you how to play electric guitar and bass. Guitar Hero or Rock Band on steroids.

And they just released a new version while I was away on vacation.

50+ new songs, supposed awesome new features–I simply had to buy the thing. I’ve had some time now to play with it a fair bit, and I’m here to give you a verdict. It should come as no big surprise that the verdict is a resounding “BUY THIS GAME” for anyone remotely interested in playing guitar or bass. As before, the set up is simple. You take your electric bass or guitar and plug it into your PS3/XBox 360/PC/Mac. You don’t need a specialty controller–your guitar is the controller. There are more than 50 new songs to choose from (and you can import your old Rocksmith songs over all at once for a $10 fee). There’s everything from The Police to Aerosmith to The Cars to Iron Maiden, plus hundreds of downloadable songs, with more coming out each week. (At about $3/song, if you choose to buy them.)

Notes come down a “musical highway” similar to Guitar Hero. The difference here is that they correspond to real strings and frets, as opposed to colored buttons on a junky plastic fake guitar. You’re playing along with the real song. They’ve removed the part that you’re supposed to play. So you hear what you’re doing, as you’re doing it. However, since we’re not all guitar gods, they adjust the difficulty to your ability. If you’re an absolute beginner, you might have to play one note every few seconds. They fill in the rest with the original part. As you get better, you’re responsible for more and more of the notes. It adds them as the game senses your ability growing, until by the end, it’s all just you.

The game’s added some great features that make this an even better purchase now than it was before.

  • Session mode–You can put together a drummer and supporting instruments. They’ll play base chords, and you get to improvise along with them. The game does a fair job introducing you to the principles of how to do this, so you’re not just tossed to the wolves and forgotten. It’s a pretty cool set up.
  • Mini-Games–The games have been improved dramatically. They’re actually fun to play, and they still do a good job helping you practice guitar fundamentals, whether it’s honing your chords, getting your picking technique down, or learning your scales. Makes me wonder how far we are from a Pianosmith. 🙂
  • The songs themselves offer much more complete information, including which fingers to use, and tips on how to get better on each song. You’re not deluged with information, though. It’s a fine line to walk, and they’ve pulled it off effortlessly.
  • Riff Repeater–the game has a built in way for you to “level up” your playing ability on each song. With old Rocksmith, you had to exit a song, go to a particular piece, practice that, then exit it again to pick a new part of the song to practice. That’s all gone now. You can be in the middle of a song, bring up the riff repeater, and choose what part of the song you want to work on–how slow you want it adjusted, how difficult you want it to be (how many notes)–you name it. And once you’re through practicing, you can go and finish the song, right from there.

Really, one of the biggest differences is the absence of waiting. With the old game, there were a ton of load screens and tuning checks and menus. Those are drastically diminished, so you can just play. There’s even a mode that lets you pick how long you want to play for, and then it goes from one song to the next with no wait between. Fantastic.

Now, a disclaimer. This game doesn’t make learning the guitar easy. It’s still a skill that takes lots of practice and work. So don’t think you’re going to get the game and go from a know-nothing to a know-everything in a week or two. I’ve been playing it pretty steadily for two years now, and I’m to the point where there are some songs that I have down solid, but there are plenty of harder songs that I still really struggle with. What the game does is make it possible to learn in a fun manner. It’s perfect for me, and if you have any experience learning a new instrument, I think you’ll really enjoy this game.

In the end, I’d say this is a game for pretty much anyone interested in playing the guitar. It’ll start with the very basics and go all the way up to advanced technique. If you’re already a pro, I suppose it might not hold as much interest–though the sessions mode and the tons of amp choices might persuade you. It’s not cheap, but compared to the cost of taking lessons, it’s a real steal.

Anyone else out there already playing it? Let me know what you think!

Bryce’s Handy Christmas Gift Guide

Do you have a beloved geek in your life? Someone who needs some holiday presents, but when they tell you what they want, your eyes glaze over, and you stop being able to understand the words coming out of their mouths? Or maybe you want to surprise them with something special. Look no further, my friends! Let Bryce help you out, with the list of Stuff I Already Have and Love or Wish I Had So I Could Love.

Don’t ever say I didn’t do anything for you.

Basically, I’m just going to spit out things that I think are awesome, and when I run out of time for this blog post, I’ll stop. Easy enough, right? Click the pictures to see more info about each item.

Kindle Paperwhite–I don’t have an eReader, but if I did, this is the one I’d get. Crisp, clean text, back lit, great battery life, and it’s in the Amazon biosphere, meaning there are just a ton of books to choose from.
Lost Cities–A fantastic two player card game. Easy to learn, easy to play. Perfect for you if you want to play with the board gamer in your life, but don’t actually want to invest 10 hours each time you play a game. One game takes 15 minutes or so. Nice!
Lego Mindstorms 2.0–Certainly not for the faint of wallet. But the ability to build working robots out of Legos and then program them with your computer?!? What’s not to love?
Rocksmith–This is *without a doubt* one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten. I can play the electric guitar now. I couldn’t play it a year ago. Period. A year later, I still play almost daily, and I love love love it. It’s available for PS3, XBox 360, and Windows. This bundle comes with a guitar and the game–everything you need to get started. (Assuming you have the console, of course.)

Lord of the Rings Card Game–The best solo card game I’ve found out there. Tons of expansions available. Another one of my favorite gifts from last year. It lets me play strategy games all by myself. No friends needed! 🙂
Nintendo 3DS–TRC loves and adores his and uses it all. the. time. He can play games, shoot stop motion video, take pictures, watch Netflix–the whole shebang. 

Hmmm… This book. Vodnik? Yeah. All the cool cats are reading it. 🙂

Ready Player One–One of the best books I read last year. Perfect for the techie/pop culture fiend in your life. Chock full of 80s goodness, with a sci-fi/gamer twist.

One of Denisa’s favorite kitchen tools. A modern pressure cooker that won’t blow up on you. 🙂  It’s electronic and super easy to use. Cooks beans, meats, soups, rice–you name it. She loves it.

Aerolatte Milk Frother–I use mine to make the best chocolate milk ever. Just add some Nesquick, mix it up with this little puppy, and you’ve got awesome goodness in seconds or less. 

A PS3–The best bluray player out there. Oh, and it plays Playstation games, too. But mainly this is my media-consuming device of choice.

Believe it or not, but the whole family loves This Old House. Well, maybe not DC–but even TRC enjoys reading it. Maybe it only appeals to me because I live in an old house myself, but I always look forward to each issue every month.

You can’t beat this cook book for variety and easy recipes that taste great. A favorite of mine for years. I assume you all already have one, but you know what happens when you assume . . .

A friend of mine turned me on to this book. Fantastic. Tons of recipes for every cookie you can think of. It’s a reissue of an old book, so that means you get a ton of classic recipes. Perfect for Christmas baking–or whenever.

It got some bad buzz at the beginning for being  too easy, then too hard, but it’s been patched beautifully, and I still regularly play Diablo 3. Brings back old memories of earlier Diablos. Good times.

My current Leatherman of choice. I never leave home without it. Period. Because you never know when you’re going to need it.

That’s all I have time for, folks. But there you have it–a list of toys and things that I either use a bunch myself, or my family does. I vouch for all of them. Happy shopping! 🙂

Bryce-azon Returns! For All Your Shopping Wants

Halloween is over, folks. And that means Thanksgiving is about to get mowed over by the holiday juggernaut that is The Holidays. It also means that you’re going to have to be buying presents for just about everyone you’ve ever met in your entire life.

That’s where Bryce-azon steps in, as faithful readers will remember.

First off, let me just say that if you’re going to shop for Christmas presents (or any other sort of present), consider avoiding chain stores and buy something from a local artisan or local store. Keep your money in your community, instead of shipping it off to some suit in an office somewhere.

But I know you. You’re like my students–the ones I always tell to “Start your research early.” They never do, and you’re probably not going to shop local, no matter what I say.

Well then . . .

If you must shop Amazon, at least do it the right way. Give me some of the proceeds! 🙂 Amazon has this thing where if you shill for them, they give you 4-6% of what they make off the people you sent their way. For you, this is easy. Anytime you want to buy something from Amazon, come here to my blog and click the Bryce-azon picture up above there. (Beautiful, isn’t it?) Then, shop as normal. Search for whatever you want. Put it in your cart. Pay for it, and rest easy, knowing that you essentially gave me a Christmas present at the same time you were getting Christmas presents for someone else. (Note: I also accept Hanukkah presents, Festivus presents, birthday presents, get well soon gifts, graduation presents–I am no respecter of presents. I take ’em all!)

And if you’re hard up on ideas for presents, allow me to make a small suggestion:

Note: This will not be the last time I remind you to BUY MY BOOK this holiday season. Because it’s the gift that keeps on giving, people. Nothing says “I love you” like a book with a kid with his arm on fire. Trust me. Your wife/husband/son/daughter/grandchild/secretary/teacher/niece/dentist/_______ will love it.

Anyway–happy shopping, peoples! Tis the season to be greedy. 🙂 After all, we ain’t gonna get out of this recession by *saving* our money.

Christmas Toy Reflection Reviews

Now that it’s been a month since Christmas, I thought I’d take a look back on some of the toys we got and give them two ratings from 1-10. The first for anticipation levels leading up to the Big Day, the second for actual fun and value. Because hey–we all know that some toys soar and some crash. Maybe our experience can help you find some great toys. Here we go:

Anticipation: 0–I got these as a surprise for the fam. The kids hadn’t expressed any interest in having some, but I got them anyway.
Actual fun: 7–We’ve played with them as a family at least four times since Christmas, and everybody has a great time. We’ve stuck to Mexican Train so far, and the rules are simple enough that TRC can play on his own and beat me and Denisa as often as we beat him. Great purchase. Cheap, and lots of fun. Definitely worth it.

LEGO Master Builder Academy:
Anticipation: 5–TRC really wanted more Legos. I looked around for a while and ended up getting a family subscription to the Master Builder Academy, which sends us a pack in the mail once a month, and supposedly teaches all sorts of tips and tricks to become a master builder.
Actual fun: 8–Again, TRC loves it. Getting stuff in the mail as a kid is never a bad thing, and he’s really taken the lessons to heart. I’ve seen his constructions improve. It’s a fun kit, and I’ve enjoyed getting them myself. Hey–you can never have too many Legos.

Anticipation: 10–I had huge hopes for this. I’ve blogged about that already.
Actual fun: 10–Until I broke my elbow, I’d played this every day I could, usually for at least an hour a day. One of the biggest bummers I have about my broken elbow is the fact that I can’t play this game for now. It’s that good.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Anticipation: 8–New Zelda, with cool sword 1:1 motion accuracy? Sign me up!
Actual fun: 6–A bit of a let down–especially at first. It took too long to get into the game. But now that I’m into it, it’s going much better. It’s a great game for me to be able to play while TRC watches, and I expect the actual fun rating to end up around a 7 or 8, which isn’t too bad, all things considered.

7 Wonders Game:
Anticipation: 7–I’d heard really good things about this game, and I thought long and hard before I chose it as the game to buy this year for Christmas. That’s a lot riding on one game.
Actual Fun: 0–Big disappointment. Not because the game is bad. I haven’t had a chance to play it. I broke open the rules, got ready to play with Denisa, and found out that it’s designed with three or more players in mind. It’s got a 2 person variant, but it’s supposedly too confusing if you haven’t played with 3 or more already. That ain’t gonna fly with Denisa. So this one will have to wait for a few years until TRC can play, too. Big bummer.

Apple TV:
Anticipation: 7–I wanted this to fill a few holes in my AV library–primarily as a way to get content from a computer/iPad to my TV screen.
Actual Fun–5–Not quite what I wanted, but it scratches most of the itches I wanted it to. I’ve used it to watch TV through my iPad onto my big screen, and I’ve streamed music with it. Mainly disappointing from an “it ought to be capable of more” standpoint.

Nerf N-Strike Maverick
Anticipation: 9–TRC really wanted a new Nerf. He loves these things
Actual Fun–2–It broke not too long after he got it. He still uses it a bit, but it was, on the whole, a let down I think.

Those are some of the highlights. Other items that went over well were the Yoga DVDs I got Denisa–she’s used them almost every day, which I count as a roaring success. The Kitchenaid cover? Not so much. She just uses the Kitchenaid too much for it to make any sense covering it. I should have seen that one coming. Whoops. Still, it was all told a fairly successful Christmas, mainly due to avoiding buying the garbage they advertise on TV and going for quality, well-reviewed products, instead. For that reason, it’s been really useful to not have TV for TRC and DC to see ads for the crummy products. Much easier to get them excited for things that are actually worth getting excited for. Ya know?

How about you? Any particular toys/items that were very successful or disappointing? Do share. I have two kid birthdays coming up, after all. Always looking for ideas . . .

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