A few months back, the folks at EEWeb.com, an online community for electrical engineers, contacted me about being one of their “Featured Engineers” – the resulting interview went live today:
It’s Christmas, and you’ve got a geek in your life. Congratulations! Maybe you’re a new boyfriend or girlfriend, bewildered by your love interest’s tech savvy, or maybe you’re a parent whose progeny has recently taken a sharp turn toward geekdom. Perhaps, on the flip-side, your long-time significant-other has always been a geek, leading to endless gift-giving frustration. In any case, DaveRea.com is here to help. This handy guide post should help get you started in navigating the strange and contradictory world of geek gift giving…
Let’s get one thing out of the way right up-front: Unless you know your geek extraordinarily well, or are a fellow geek yourself, avoid tech gifts like the plague! Chances are, your geek researches the living hell out of every technology purchase, analyzing myriad specifications and exploring minutia of compatibility. The odds are stacked – much like a ready-to-topple Jenga tower – very much against you. If you must buy technology, get ready to do your homework: you’ll need to make sure that your gadget gift of choice will play nicely with everything in your geek’s current stable of tech goodies, not to mention scope out the reviews to make sure it meets with other geeks’ approval. Simply aiming for the cutting edge isn’t enough, either – it can actually be a negative if your target hasn’t been “rooted” or “jailbroken” yet. All that said, if you’re still insistent and a fan of the “dog ate my homework” school of research, most things endorsed by Limor Fried, Linus Torvalds or Steve Wozniak are at least a good start.
Next up? Accessories. You might think you’re home free now – your geek already owns and loves their smartphone, tablet or camera of choice, so picking up some attachments should be a sure thing! “But,” as Jeremy Clarkson is wont to say, “you’d be wrong…” Geeks are nearly as choosy about their accessories as they are about their gadgets. After all – if your phone accompanies you every waking hour, how it attaches to your waistband is probably nearly as important as how it synchronizes with your personal cloud. Compounding the confusion, some accessories actually use magnets, RFIDs or Bluetooth to affect the way their host gadgets operate – something that your geek might find fascinating and useful, or annoying and intrusive.
At this point, you might be left wondering what’s left?! Thankfully, the tech world is a big place, filled with extravagances that your geek probably finds endlessly amusing or interesting, but insufficiently-essential to break out the PayPal account. It’s in this treasure trove of extravagance that we find some of the best geek gift ideas. Take clothing, for example: Consider apparel (or, if your connection with your geek is a romantic one, various undergarment permutations) from ThinkGeek.com, XKCD or that epic Pandora’s box of personal printing sites, CafePress.com. If this weren’t enough, all three of these places offer various other gift options – from cube goodies to brain teasers – that are likely to glom onto your geek’s favorite memes and offer endless amusement (or, at least, a reminder of your thoughtfulness that’ll make them smile with the warmth of knowing someone finally embraces their geekiness).
Failing this, geeks’ tendencies to go over-the-top on certain things is another great source of gift ideas. For one thing, most geeks have an ongoing unrequited love affair with security. They adore encryption, enjoy (or are at least thoroughly intrigued by) lock-picking, and – among other common threads – possibly harbor a penchant for philosophy or an enthusiasm for entrepreneurship. Some ideas to consider along these lines? Check out the latest in mechanical info-sec, locksmithing for dummies, geeky deep-think or startup savvy. If your geek has constructive tendencies, you might consider applying your gift to their creative side. A gift certificate to Adafruit, Sparkfun or your local electronics (or, if you’re
crazy daring, pyrotechnics) surplus house can go a long way – and it’ll give them the opportunity to analyze and scrutinize their purchase to their geeky heart’s content.
You know your geek best – so bear in mind that the advice here may apply to varying degrees. Note that I haven’t mentioned gaming (a. because this is a complete Pandora’s Box in itself, and b. because if gaming is high on their list, relationships that might result in gifts probably aren’t) – though this can offer as many gift-giving opportunities as it does land-mines. Bear in mind, too, that the best gift for a geek might be something entirely and decidedly non-geeky – because even geeks need a break from geekiness once in a while. Sentimentality is not lost on us – one of my favorite gifts remains a framed duo of hair-brained invention ideas on coarse, yellowed typing paper – borne of my 6-year-old brain and transcribed by my patient-to-the-point-of-sainthood grandmother. It was a collaborative gift to commemorate my completion of grad-school: my Aunt saved the letters, and my wife had them framed. For the record: No combination of silicon, wires and software can bring quite the smile to my face that appears when I look at those notes. They’re artifacts of the past, connected to the me of the present by the hands of the people I love.
[Image credit: David Miles]
I planned to get back to our hotel around 6PM – leaving plenty of time to take Kelly to see Red Rocks Park and stand on-stage at the ampitheater made legendary (at least to us) by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, among others. Instead, in a dirt-filled rental car, toting a half-functioning rented Ellsworth mountain bike covered with red-clay mud and snow, I pulled into our hotel parking garage a little after 11PM. I still couldn’t feel my fingertips, and the mixture of mud and blood that washed off me in a hot post-ride shower would have been well-suited to an action-movie recovery scene.
The warm cafe where I’m sitting and typing this entry – with jazz, the smell of espresso and the sound of lighthearted conversation floating through the air – feels almost as otherworldly as the landscapes I just endured with two other riders…
It’s pretty damn cool to see QR codes (finally) skyrocketing in popularity here in the ‘States. I’ve been seeing them all over the place – in magazines, on signs and displays, winking from TV commercials, backing people’s business cards, even on bumper stickers. Unfortunately, as is usually the case as any new technology makes its way into the worlds of marketing and advertising, there are bound to be some people who get the “You’re doin’ it wrong” stamp. It’s to these ambitious QR code rookies that this post is dedicated: avoid the following pitfalls, and I’ll wager your QR code campaigns will go a lot better…
- It doesn’t help if we can’t scan it! It’s great that you’ve got an awesome web link with lots of data values hanging off the end, and maybe a nice long tracking ID, and that you’ve turned it into a QR code. The problem is, that code is probably 20 to 30 blocks on-a-side, and unless a user gets right next to it and holds their phone at just the right angle, they won’t be able to scan it. One of our local realtors has taken a liking to just this approach – convert a long, convoluted link into an extremely-detailed QR code, then print it about 4 inches tall and plop it on top of the sign. Most people will see it as a gray square, and the few that do recognize it as a QR code will have to get out of their cars and walk up to it. Congratulations – you’ve provided exactly the same value as the paper flyers stuffed into the box down below. The solution: If you must use a web link that’s 2 miles long, pass it through a URL shortening service like Bit.ly or Goo.gl. In addition to a nice, simple, QR code that doesn’t have to be in spitting distance to scan, you’ll get the click-through counters and analytics that those services provide out of the box.
- Keep it mobile! Few practices in advertising get under my skin more than a QR code that redirects me to a company’s old-fashioned home page. The only way these QR codes are going to be scanned is using a mobile device – most likely a smartphone or tablet. So don’t dump me to your boring, slow-to-load, optimized-for-1280-pixel-screens home page. You know I’m going to be visiting from a mobile device, so send me to a mobile web page that my device can consume. If I have to double-tap, pinch-zoom, scroll around or squint to see the page you’re sending me to, chances are my interaction with you is going to end almost immediately after I scan your code.
- Consider the context! QR codes are great, but there are some places and times where even the staunchest techie will admit they don’t work all that well. It’s really hard to scan a QR code in a dimly-lit room. Same goes for scanning from a moving car or aboard a bouncing bus. But my favorite example is the web link QR code (a long, convoluted link, of course) proudly displayed on a NYC subway car. Yay! You’ve given me a link! On a subway car where there’s no freakin’ data service! Unless that train car happens to go above-ground (which, I admit, does happen occasionally in the outer boroughs) I can’t even visit the site you want to share with me, let alone take any action on it. Which leads me to…
- There’s more to QR codes than URLs! It’s exceedingly rare that I encounter a QR code that contains anything but a web link (a.k.a. a URL). But there are lots more things you can stuff into a QR code! A quick look at the options on the ZXing QR Code Generator indicates you can store calendar events, geographic locations, e-mail addresses, contact info, or even just raw text. Mobile devices know what to do with these different types of codes – scanning the QR code on the back of my business card, for instance, will net you all my encoded contact info that you can pull into your device’s address book with one click. That NYC subway ad – which was for a classical music concert – would have been much more useful as a calendar event code: let me save it to my device’s calendar, then I can take action on it later, when I’m back in cell service or sitting at my home PC.
- Make it worth our while! The bottom line and end goal for any ad campaign is to convince the viewer to take action. When you put a QR code in your visuals, you’ve already got your audience taking action – we’re scanning the code! So once we’ve done that, don’t just send us to the company’s home page, or to some boring campaign-specific landing page. Offer some value add. Macy’s hit the nail on the head with this one – their latest in-store campaign offers QR codes that link you to various web videos featuring designers offering fashion advice. Considering QR code early adopters (read: geeks like me) are probably the most likely to need such advice, this is pretty brilliant. Kidding aside, in a huge field of boring QR codes, Macy’s offers a post-scan experience that’s interesting and engaging, and tied directly to the products you’re browsing through and (if they’ve played their cards right) about to carry over to the cash register.
They say that coincidence is when God works a miracle and chooses to remain anonymous, and that serendipity is the art of making an unsought finding. And if there’s ever a time that you want these sorts of things to happen, it’s when you’re trying to piece together a special weekend to celebrate your wedding anniversary. As it happened, Kelly and I found ourselves trying to do just that – just a few weeks ago – as we searched for a B&B within driving distance that might have space available over the weekend that plays host to both Independence Day and Canada Day, depending on which side of the border you’re looking…
As it happened, we found a place, and booked a 3-night stay at the Timberhouse Lodge, nestled at the edge of Prince Edward County, Ontario. After a 5-hour drive with a dinnertime pit stop in Alexandria Bay, we settled into our room, too tired to spend much effort looking through the brochures we’d picked up, or planning the next day’s adventures. At breakfast, a charming retired couple joined us at our table – after the usual greetings and pleasantries, they explained that they were visiting the area for a special concert. Apparently, they were on the mailing list of a local winery and had tickets for a concert. And the artist? Just a singer from nearby Kingston – maybe we’ve heard of her? – her name is Sarah Harmer.
As it turns out, we had heard of the delightful Sarah Harmer. She’s been a darling of local indie station WBER, and even came to Rochester for a concert at the Water Street Music Hall, years before Kelly and I were married – a concert that we attended and enjoyed! So, needless to say, we were excited, and kept our fingers crossed that there’d be a few extra tickets available if we showed up at the winery, smiled real big and maybe bought a few bottles of wine to take home.
Thanks to the efforts of Robert, the owner of Chadsey’s Cairns winery, we were able to get the last two tickets – sealed with a rooster hand stamp. After trying some wine in their barn-turned-tasting-room, we took a quick peek at the venue: a nearby barn lined with chairs and hay bales, complete with a stage, endless strings of tiny white lights, and a cool breeze through the open pasture door.
A couple of hours later, we arrived alongside a hundred-fifty-or-so other (far more invited) guests. Kids climbed around the stacks of hay, parents mingled over glasses of wine, and we found a comfortable bale on which to park. Streams of afternoon sunlight cut through the barn’s siding, painting bright stripes over long-dormant farm equipment and highlighting what little dust floated through the air as if it were fireflies brought in just for this occasion. The concert opened with the lead singer from the Canadian band Bahamas playing a solo set, just as Sarah would not long after. A witty and likable amalgamation of Willy Nelson’s guitar, John Mayer’s voice and lyrics landing somewhere in the triangle connecting the Barenaked Ladies, Jason Mraz and The Weepies, Afie Jurvanen played a set of original songs that made us smile, and set the stage of good vibes perfectly for the rest of the afternoon.
After a short break, Sarah stepped nonchalantly from a small room off to one side, finished in the same slatted siding that was now casting long strips of amber late-afternoon light over the stage. With no fanfare and just a short introduction from the winery’s owner, she started into spinning her unique flavor of indie-infused folk that’s simultaneously brilliant and down-to-earth; through the delightfully-clear concert sound system, the pitch and intonation of her voice would have been at home right alongside Sarah Mclachlan or Regina Spektor. She ran through some favorites (Basement Apartment, I am Aglow), a handful of covers, and even a few new songs – one highlight was her performance of an upbeat commissioned song for the Canadian National Parks Service (presumably) titled “Won’t You Come With Me?“ that put a smile on all our faces. Though she only speaks English, she did impress us with one verse in French after describing the difficulty she had in recording the French version. At another spot, when she forgot a chord for a cover song, she just started experimenting with the audience – eventually someone called out “B-flat!” and as she played it, a satisfied smile washed over everyone and the song casually resumed.
As Afie and Sarah played, I stopped at odd intervals and looked around. I watched people in the audience pouring wine and smiling, watched a small spider work across one beam of sunlight building a web that would have shamed Charlotte herself, watched as kids played on the broad, well-worn floorboards at the performers’ feet, prompting occasional smiles from behind the microphone that tinted the lyrics with joy. It reminded me of an article I read while we were on our honeymoon. I thought, This – right here – is the kind of thing you only read about in magazines and food blogs. It was a rare, special, once-in-a-lifetime treat, indeed.
I’ve made a somewhat startling realization this week: Beginning July 15th, I’ll be participating in some sort of organized cycling event every weekend for a solid month.
On the 15th, I’ll be kicking off the craziness with a ride in the 6th Annual Fat Tire Festival at our area’s definitive singletrack destination, Dryer Road Park. But that’s just a warm up – the following weekend, I’ll be burning about 6x the energy of the Fat Tire when I ride in a twenty-four hour mountain bike race – thankfully, as part of a team of 4 riders.
From there, the fun moves onto the road, with the Ride MS century (that’s 100 miles, kids) the next weekend, and a 55-mile tour one week later.
I suppose the training rides have already started – but I sure don’t feel as ready for this epic month of cycling as I did for last year’s race!