Enjoy the third and final part of this year's gift guide: toys! Also included are everything else that doesn't quite fit into our picks among the books and gadgets to enchant and enwonderize us in 2016. What cool and weird objects of fascination did you find this year?
Makey MakeyIt’s easier to understand what Makey Makey is by watching this video of it in action than by describing it, but I’ll give it a shot. Makey Makey is a printed circuit board that you connect to any computer with a USB cable (included). You don’t need to install any software. Your computer thinks Makey Makey is a keyboard. And it is a keyboard of sorts. But it doesn’t use standard keys. Instead, you connect wires from Makey Makey to anything that conducts electricity: a piece of fruit, a bowl of water, a cup of soup, a scrap of aluminum foil, blobs of Play-Doh. When you touch the object with your finger, your computer will think you are pressing a key on a standard keyboard. You can assign the object to be a spacebar key, an arrow key, or a letter key. And you can connect several objects to Makey Makey at the same time, so that you can create game controllers, musical interfaces, and other button-controlled devices.
It might not sound like much fun, but the possibilities are endless, and Makey Makey’s ease of use encourages quick-and-dirty experimentation. My 12-year-old was instantly transfixed by Makey Makey and she started making all sorts of things with it, including a drum machine triggered by apple slices, and a game controller out of a cardboard box and bits of foil.
Makey Makey also works with Scratch, the excellent kids’ software development platform. Check out the Makey Makey games people have created using Scratch.
A Silly Putty 6 pack6 Eggs of Silly Putty, just as you remember it. I almost bought a print newspaper to lift some comics, and then remembered it just ruins the stuff and isn’t so impressive.
3" Glass PyramidMade of "optically clear crystal" and three inches tall, Amlong's Crystal Pyramid is the best Crystal Pyramid. My bacon is fresh, my airspace dangerous, and my undertakings favored.
Welcome to Night Vale Creepy Baby OnesieThey say "Creepy" because they come from Night Vale, where "creepy" is a superlative.
A Rube Goldberg-ian good time for allFun for the whole family, Mouse Trap is a game that never gets old and rarely works as intended.
2016 LEGO Star Wars Advent CalendarThis years Star Wars Advent Calendar does not end on Wookie Life Day, but I like the minifigs.
Bulk Generic LegoYou can get 1000 random pieces of off-brand building bricks for $30, guaranteed to "fit tight
Wolf Crotch UnderwearWith a "convex design, large space and breathable," the 3D Wolf Head Crotch Underwear "make man looks sexy and wild" and can be yours for as little as five American dollars.
Beasts of BalanceKickstarted in 2016, Beasts of Balance is a smart-phone enable tabletop game that combines stacking/balancing (think Jenga) with smart, sensor-enabled blocks that talk to your mobile device as you play the game, creating fun and complex challenges.
Draft-Matic Mechanical PencilI worked as an engineering intern for a couple of summers when I was in college. I shared a cubicle with a draftsperson named Laura. She was obsessed with two things - being part of an outlaw motorcycle gang, and her drafting materials, especially her mechanical pencil. I liked her very much, but one time I made the mistake of borrowing her pencil while she was on a cigarette break. When she came back and discovered me using it she was so mad I thought she was going to stab me with it. I remember her describing the penc
I'm 99% percent sure the pencil she owned was an Alvin Draft-Matic 5mm.
Reflectacles: super-reflective glasses-frames that look amazingScott Urban's new Reflectacles glasses are Ray Ban-style frames that are embedded with the kind of retroreflective cat-eye materials used for highway markers, making them reflective at 500 yards at night, and nearly that visible by day. He's kickstarting them at an astoundingly cheap $85/pair, in seven colors.
Sea MonkeysI remember lonely days in my 20s when Sea Monkeys were my only pet. My roommate at the time was a 6’6” pre-frontally lobotomized, homophobic, anti-semitic, epileptic, children’s party clown. It was only through the love of my Sea Monkeys that I survived.
Loog electric 3-string guitarI love Loog 3-string guitars. They use open-tuning, which makes them very easy to play.
Seconds of excitement, by EstesRemember the anticipation? Stuffing RECOVERY WADDING in your rocket? Putting in the engine, fitting in the tiny matchhead sized ignitor? Running 15-20’ of wire out to your tiny launch control device! Hitting the button and fizz... Nothing happens! Three seconds later, just as you are standing up to approach “the rocket.” ZZZZZZZIIIIIIIP! You mostly miss seeing the launch, and the rocket is already tumbling back to earth. The parachute having a) popped to early, b) far too late, or c) in a ball of flame.
Monopoly Deal card gameMonopoly Deal is a $5 card game that takes 15-20 minutes to play and has lots of player interaction, and no mind numbing roll-and-move mechanic. Many of the 110 cards in the deck look familiar (money, properties, utilities). There are also action cards which can be used to collect rent, steal another players' property, cancel an action card, or used as money. Best of all, even the richest player is at risk of losing, so everyone stays interested in playing till the end.
Copper mugs for Moscow MulesI didn't know what a Moscow Mule was until I saw the Bali Hai episode of Better Call Saul. The drink, made from vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice, poured over ice, was served to Kim Wexler (my favorite character on the show, played by Rhea Seehorn) in a copper mug. Recently, I went on vacation with my wife, and she ordered a Moscow Mule at a restaurant. It was served in a copper mug. It turns out you are supposed to serve them that way.
The origins of the Moscow Mule are a bit murky, but it appears to have been invented in the early 1940s by the owner of a Hollywood pub on the Sunset Strip called the Cock 'n' Bull. The bartender wanted to clean out a slow-moving stockpile of Smirnoff's and bottled ginger beer that had been gathering dust on the shelves in the backroom, so he mixed them together and started serving them in copper mugs to the movie stars who frequented the pub. It became an instant hit, at least until McCarthyism scared people away from anything with the taint of Sovietism to it. But the Moscow Mule had a kick that people liked, and it made a comeback in the 1960s, which it enjoys today.
Tiffin Board GameMore than 250,000 of Mumbai's workers enjoy a home-cooked lunch every day thanks to the dabbawallas, who bring tiffins -- stacking lunchpails -- filled at each worker's family kitchen directly to their workplace, in a miracle of coordinated logistics that consistently beats Mumbai's legendary traffic jams and attains unheard-of accuracy despite the low levels of literacy among dabbawallas.
Tiffin is a new tabletop game from Rael Dornfest -- RSS pioneer; creator of the Blosxom blogging tool; technologist for Charity:Water; former chair of the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conferences; and husband of Asha "Parent Hacks" Dornfest -- that challenges you to match the dabbawallas' logistical skill by building delivery routes that minimize waste and maximize delivery efficiency.
Players compete to build more-efficient routes, while contending with slowdowns and flat tires, edging out the competition with short-cuts.
Titanium Quasi SporkThe Light My Fire spork isn't technically a spork, but rather a handle with a fork on one end and a spoon on the other. Call it a spork in front of your friends for a free nerdrage lecture.
Scorched Star Trek:TOS redshirtsThese full-sublimation Star Trek redshirts allow you to LARP an expendable security team-member who's met a horrible end, or a character in an existential John Scalzi comedy.
BloxelsMake pixel art in meatspace! Bloxels is a physical 13x13 art board with 320 blocks, which come with a free app to turn your creations into actual video game characters and levels: "When creating game rooms, each color in your design represents a different element, like green for terrain, blue for water or red for a hazard. When working on art, the color blocks represent the pixel art."
Mickey Mouse WatchI've always wanted a Mickey Mouse watch. This model is $23 on Amazon, and looks better than more expensive ones.
Bounce though the holidaysI went to my brother’s house a couple weeks back and was IMPRESSED. Rather than renting these from a party service, my brother just bought a bounce house for the kids. From age 2 to about 11, and then again from 19-35 or so, this’ll exhaust family and make every day kid management a lot easier. Tire them out!
Elenco 200-in-One Electronic Project Lab: A modern rebuild of the Radio Shack 150-in-One electronics kitElenco's highly rated 200-in-One Electronic Project Lab, which uses the same spring-wire and no-solder connectors as Radio Shack's classic, much-loved 150-in-One Electronics Kit, and adds a rack-mount chassis that lets your homebrew projects integrate with your home AV or networking gear.
There are 200 projects in the kit, including "Build your own Radio, AM Broadcast Station, Burglar Alarm, Electronic Game, Ohmmeter, Telegraph, Rain Detector and Sound effects tool."
Hand blown pink glass tentacleIf Peggy Olson had one of these hand blown pink glass tentacle massagers on her desk, it would go nicely with her Hokusai.
Eric Harshbarger diceEric Harshbarger's weird, laser-engraved dice are a tour-de-force: a pair of D6s for figuring out where to go for dinner in NYC; another D6 to figure out which die you should roll; an all-20s critical hit D20; Sicherman D6s that have different faces to a normal D6 pair, but the same probability distribution; punctuation mark dice (I've had students who were definitely using these); dice for indecisive people, and so on.
Caped Wonder Woman onesieThough the Dawn of Justice movie was a disappointment, the $45 Wonder Woman Dawn of Justice onesie (with cape!) (and gold foil tiara on the hood!) is not a bad consolation prize (and the cape zips off).
The Buddy Christ dashboard statuetteNo mid 70s sedan could possibly be complete without the Buddy Christ. I sort of thing my Vanagon needs one too.
MeaniesJust the sort of toys that kids love but parents would never get, Meanies are the perfect indiscreet gift for nieces, nephews, and other people's children. OG Meanie Splat the Roadkill Cat is "totally gross" but out of production.
Cthulhu ski masksWith more than a hundred positive reviews, Amurleopard's $4.23 Cthulhu ski mask seems to represent a kind of triumph in a narrow but important niche.
Tabasco packetsThe convenience of carrying your favorite hot-sauce in individual sachets -- think "McDonald's ketchup pouches" -- can't be overstated. It's a particularly great format if you're a frequent traveller, as TSA screeners don't recognize the shape as a "liquid" on their X-rays, meaning you can just stash them in your bags and pockets and not worry about getting them all out when you reach a checkpoint.
Crossbow pistolI bought this crossbow pistol because my family’s favorite character on The Walking Dead, Daryl Dixon, uses a crossbow to take out zombies, and we thought it would be fun for target practice. It was only about $25, and I didn’t expect it to be very powerful, but I was wrong. A bolt shot from this thing could kill someone. It easily penetrates plywood. I’m not sure if a bolt could go through someone’s skull, but it would definitely lodge itself in a leg, arm, abdomen, or neck.
If you buy this, give it the same respect you would a firearm. It’s not a toy, but it sure is fun. That said, I don't think anyone under the age of 18 should use it without adult supervision.
It doesn’t require a lot of effort to cock it, but a smaller kid would not be able to figure out how to do it. The safety automatically engages when you cock it, thankfully. The crossbow comes with three aluminum (very sharp) bolts. You can buy a pack of 36 additional bolts for $12.