How to win at Christmas – Gifts for geeks

Although there are some people willing to sleep outside in sub-zero temperatures amongst the other bargain hunters who will eventually attempt to trample them in order to get the last Elsa costume pajama set (insert your own “Let it Go” joke here), I have never been tempted by Black Friday sales. As I explained in my last post, it helps that I’m not obligated to do any Christmas shopping. So rather than running through the aisles of Target like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, I went out with my family for a leisurely deli brunch.

10809557_781785265228107_1679755731_n

The most effort I’ve put into shopping today is occasionally refreshing the page to see the next item in today’s woot-off. No danger of getting trampled there. If you’re also averse to full-contact consumerism, there are plenty of sites online that have geek gifts aplenty. I’ve touched before on the vast array of disturbing fan-sploitation products out there, but there are also lots of genuinely awesome items to be found.

GLIBTOTE_375_1

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is pick up a copy of Mental Floss magazine from the airport newsstand. It’s chock-full of randomly assembled interesting tidbits, and always keeps me occupied while waiting for a flight. Not only do they have subscription bundles available for purchase online, they also have a shop with an equally random assortment of interesting items.

1513_building_brick_light_switch_plate

ThinkGeek is a go-to of mine for all manner of nerd things, even though they do have a tendency to try to mine every possible fan community for customers. However, the upside to this is that they have the menu option to shop by interest, making it easier to find something specific or specialized. They also have a lot of items that are exclusive to their site, like heat-changing mugs (I own this one) and character hoodies. Want to make your mark on this year’s office secret Santa exchange? They’ve got something for that too.

USMU085359lg

Nerd Approved is another blog I read on the regular, and they’ve got a curated shop of products that I would love to go on a spree in. There’s a section just for holiday ornaments, and also a fairly extensive collection of Pop! vinyl figures (a great stocking stuffer for pretty much anyone). As with ThinkGeek, you can browse based on your interests or you can browse based on a category.

And, for the record, any of these items would make a great gift for that special blogger in your life.

How to win at Christmas – Handmade holiday gifts

I don’t celebrate Christmas. This means I don’t really feel the stress of the holiday shopping season (and judging by the looks on other people’s faces, it’s really stressful). That being said, I still do like giving gifts. I don’t reserve my gift-giving just to Christmas. If I see something I know a friend will like, I have a tendency to buy it and send it along, regardless of season or occasion. But since the rest of you are probably making lists (and checking them the requisite number of times), I thought I’d write up a few gift-giving guides.

Maybe “guide” is a bit of a strong word. More like, a few curated lists of awesome stuff.

This first collection comes from the hallowed handmade halls of Etsy. If you don’t know how to properly navigate it, Etsy can be a nightmare tidal wave of WTF. But if you have a little bit of search know-how, there are some awesome treasures to be found.

il_570xN.332392963

This shop has been knocking it out of the park for years. I love her mugs (and mugs and mugs), but I especially love this plate. I would eat the heck out of cheese off this plate. It combines the power of pun with the majesty of Lionel Ritchie’s hair, with the added bonus of it being a serving platter for delicious dairy products.

il_570xN.308507334

If you have a friend who loves both pop culture and slick typography, this shop makes art to hang on the walls of a grownup who is still in touch with his inner child. There’s a lot of Harry Potter images, including some really cool propaganda-style posters and vintage-looking ads. Obviously, this honey badger print is my favorite, because they are badass little weirdos. (Although, my spirit animal is the mantis shrimp.)

il_570xN.680936928_j63v

For a stocking stuffer, I love the stylized cartoon magnets made by this wacky illustrator. He has some classic video game characters done in a modern style, plenty of blockbuster movie characters (both past and present), and a lot of galactic goodies. If you’re not a fan of The Mighty Boosh, the magnet featured above might seem to be in the WTF category. If you are a fan, then we are friends and you understand why it’s awesome.

il_570xN.685829010_9tmv

Last on this list, you’ll need a card to go with your perfectly chosen present. The first item I ever bought on Etsy was a magnet of this print, and it’s still one of my favorite possessions. He now offers a few cards through the same shop, as well as a wide variety of cards through his second shop.

For my next post, I’ll be putting together a collection of the finest geek gifts for that special nerd in your life. If you have any requests for items or categories you’d like help finding, let me know in the comments!

Faking it – Crock pot apple crumble

Pumpkin is, without question, the star of the Thanksgiving season. It’s versatile, preserves well, and easy to incorporate into both sweet and savory dishes. But I’m not here to talk about pumpkins.

The thing is, as much as I love pumpkin in almost anything, I don’t like pumpkin pie. I’ve never been a fan, which is remarkably strange considering I love pumpkin bread and cookies and cakes. Every few years I try a bite, just in case my palate has changed (so far it hasn’t). Needless to say, this results in an underwhelming end to every Thanksgiving meal.

In hunting around for an alternative option, I stumbled across an ingenious solution. Rather than overwork the oven, you can use the crock pot to slow-cook dessert while you’re eating dinner.

Chopped apples with cinnamon

Using this recipe as a base, I made just a few little adjustments based on what I had on hand. (The fact that she starts out the post talking about taking a break from pumpkin was a very good sign.) While I’m sure it’s delicious with a light dusting of crumble, I found that doubling the amount of topping gave an even cover over the whole pot. If you’re going to indulge in butter-toasted goodness, you may as well commit to doing it like a proper glutton.

Start out by giving the crock pot a light coating of buttery nonstick spray (or your nonstick coating of choice). Take 4-6 apples (I used Honeycrisp), peel them, chop them into rough chunks, and throw them into that slippery slow cooker. Add a bunch of cinnamon and toss to coat.

Apple crumble topping

In a separate bowl, mix together 1/2 cup almond flour1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts, and spices to taste (for me that was cinnamon and ground ginger). If you would like your topping to be sweet, you could also add in some brown sugar or Splenda. Stir it well, then toss in 1/4 cup butter that has been chopped into smaller bits.

Use a pastry cutter to combine it all, then spread that delightful nutty ambrosia over the top of the apples. Cover the crock pot and cook on low for 2-3 hours. Leaving it in for closer to 3 hours means the apples will be soft and gooey. If you prefer your apples to still have a bit of bite to them, 2 hours should do the trick. I’ve tried the finished product on its own, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and drizzled with cream (the things I do for my readers) and I can attest that all are equally great ways to enjoy it.

I am so winning at homemade goodness today. Apple crumble from the slow cooker. #nom

A photo posted by Natalie (@positivelynatalie) on

As an added bonus, thanks to the use of various nuts instead of flour, this is a gluten free way to end the Thanksgiving meal. It’s also hypothetically paleo-friendly, provided you’re the type of paleo person who makes allowances for butter, and low carb if you don’t add any sugar. Most importantly, it’s just straight-up delicious.

The hibernation of the mind

I have two basic states of being – creating and consuming – and I’ve found that they tend to be mutually exclusive. The interpretation of either state is relatively broad, but the main constant is that they remain separate. When I was younger, the transition was seamless. I would write feverishly for fifteen minutes, then pick up a book and read for an hour before going back to writing. It was a reflex, a natural jump from pen to paperback.

Now, I need to make a much more conscious effort to get myself from consuming to creating. It’s tempting to just place blame on the passage of time, to say that nothing is as simple as it was twenty years ago. Which, to be fair, is true. But I don’t think age is the issue so much as the time constraints of adulthood. Working full time means that I have limited free time and there’s only so much I can pack in.

As evidenced by the gap in posts, I’ve spent the past month voraciously consuming. Sometimes several books in a day (though the multi-book days were decidedly YA fiction) and quite a bit of film and television on top of that. There have been many times when I told myself I should sit down and write, but I’ve found it’s best not to force it if the will isn’t there. So, to jumpstart myself back into the swing of things, here are a few recommendations based on my recent consumption.

If you’re looking for an enjoyable quick read, look no further than The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. While American Gods remains my favorite of his novels, Ocean is creative, charming, and just the right amount of dark. In his distinct style he blurs the line between childhood imagination and reality, weaving an interesting tale in the process. I also quite literally loved the book – the pages (shown above) were rough cut, making it feel like a journal in my hands. Even if you’re not a fast reader, you could probably get through the book in a day (I read it in one afternoon).

Another jaunt into magical realism (with a heavy dose of both magic and reality) is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. The way she builds the story is absolutely masterful, as is her ability to be both bitingly funny and heartbreakingly serious. This is a much longer read, and is best enjoyed as slowly as possible. There is a lot of subtlety and a lot of footnotes (though the footnotes are a creative device, not a burden) so my advice is to take your time to absorb and appreciate the details.

Other books to add to your reading list:

  • Horns (Joe Hill)
  • The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Karen Russell)

Tried my hand at overnight oats. Added coconut milk, honey and freeze-dried strawberries.

A photo posted by Natalie (@positivelynatalie) on

Other forays into consumption have naturally involved testing out new recipes. As an addition to my breakfast rotation I’ve started experimenting with overnight oats made in the fridge. It’s a relatively simple formula – at its most basic just equal parts oats and liquid – and very easy to adapt. The batch above was equal parts oats and coconut milk, plus some freeze-dried strawberries and a touch of honey. The only catch is that you have to remember to mix it up the night before. It’s a total bummer to open the fridge in the morning and realize that your breakfast has not already made itself.

My favorite combos:

  • 1/2 cup oats, 1/4 cup freeze-dried blueberries, 2 Tb unsweetened shredded coconut, 1 scoop vanilla protein powder, 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup oats, 1/2 cup pumpkin puree, 1/2 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk, 1 scoop vanilla protein powder, 1 tsp. cinnamon, dash of nutmeg and ginger

A photo posted by Natalie (@positivelynatalie) on

While I won’t be NaNoWriMo-ing, I will make a commitment to write at least two blog posts a week for the month of November. While I’m working my way out of the hibernation of the mind, I suspect it will soon be followed by the hibernation of the body, so expect a lot of recipes in your future.

From the mouths of babes

When I was a teenager, over the course of about a week, three different companies starting building self-storage facilities along the same block. It was as if, unbeknownst to each other, they all bought the same consumer research poll that indicated my neighborhood was full of people with too much stuff willing to pay for storage.

Lately, I’ve been overcome with the feeling that ad agencies have done the exact same thing. Except, instead of building vast mazes of padlocked cubes, they’re all shooting television spots featuring kids. More, specifically, television spots featuring kids acting like adults. I’ve talked before about the sales potential of harnessing adorable, but these kids are anything but. They’re actually kind of, well… jerks.

These two smug little bastards are pushing the Amazon Fire Phone. This is actually the least annoying of their ads, so thank your lucky stars I couldn’t find the one where the child-man is speculatively buying real estate investments as the child-woman glares at you in haughty judgement. Even without watching the entire commercial, their hats make it clear from the start that I will hate them.

fire-phone

While the ad is meant to show off the features of the phone, all it really does for me is demonstrate how we as humans are quickly losing our ability to socially interact with other humans. These two are sitting at a table, together, facing each other, and the only conversation they have is telling each other a list of things they’ll be doing individually on their phones. Also, that is a soft boiled egg. Its consumption is time dependent. Put down your damn phone and eat your damn egg before it congeals.

This kid gets a solid ranking on the adorable scale, but rather than working with that, Subaru decided to turn his dream sequence into a nightmare sequence. He only gets a few frames of looking cool for his friends before he’s making a bleary-eyed carpool run, battling with a meter reader, scraping groceries off the asphalt, and waiting in traffic for the rhythmic swish-swish of his wiper blades to slowly drive him insane.

subaru-legacy

The intention of the commercial is to tell you that while this kid isn’t quite ready yet for car ownership, the car will be durable enough for him to drive when he is old enough. The problem with their approach is that, by the end of the ad, I’m no longer thinking about the car. I’m thinking about how underwhelming adulthood is. I’m thinking about the cramp I got in my calf yesterday while pressing the brake on and off during rush hour traffic. I’m thinking about curling up in a ball and softly crying myself to sleep. Congratulations, Subaru, you’ve plunged me headfirst into an existential crisis.

Much like Amazon, Comcast wants to you to equate their product with young, successful, entrepreneurs. They want you to see how Xfinity is so awesome that you won’t notice any disruption in service when your kid invites over the entire block to mooch off the internet that you pay for in order to build a very vaguely-worded “tech start-up” in your garage. Judging by all the gear, he likely also swiped your credit card to pay for his operation costs.

xfinity-startup

Your child will then proceed to back-talk his own grandfather, who looks bewildered in his new role as the unpaid intern in charge of all the tedious coding. My takeaway is that Xfinity will turn your child into an entitled asshole with no respect for authority and no love for family. Basically Xfinity will turn your child into the human version of Comcast. He will know success, but you will know only regret and disappointment.

Why net neutrality is worth fighting for

For a large majority of people, the term “net neutrality” doesn’t really mean much. It’s probably something you’ve heard mentioned a few times over the past year, but you likely dismissed it for sounding too technical or too boring or too… virtual. So, I’m going to ask you to think of it in a different way. Instead of saying net neutrality, I want you to say “corporate censorship.”

Really say it. Say it out loud. Make it real.

Corporate Censorship

Because that’s what the elimination of net neutrality really boils down to. Without it, the small handful of internet providers in the country will be able to legally throttle internet speeds. If you want people to be able to access your website, you’re going to have to pay to play. Just a small business starting out? An all-volunteer academic resource? A personal blog? Welcome to the slow lane.

Without net neutrality there would likely have never been an eBay. No Amazon. No Wikipedia. No Etsy. At their inception, none of these companies would have been able to afford to pay Comcast or Verizon the fees they’re proposing in order for their site to be accessible.

battle2-1

If you’ve never experienced it before, throttled internet is difficult to comprehend. I lived in China for nearly six years, a country whose own government routinely throttles the internet. If it was a sensitive date (e.g. June 4) or a time when officials were in Beijing to convene or sometimes just because an incident resulted in scrutiny from the international press, the government would intentionally slow the web to a crawl. As a companion action to outright blocking sites, this served as a convenient form of censorship via denial of service.

Working as the Web Editor for a magazine, this often made it impossible to do my job. “Sorry guys, we just can’t internet today,” was a phrase spoken more times than I can count. Part of my decision to leave Beijing and move back to America was related to this web sabotage. Now, to find out this could soon be a reality here as well, I’m supremely disappointed. More than disappointed, actually. I’m mad. Furious.

You don’t have to be web-savvy to care about the cause. Because this really is about more than the web, it’s about control. If the FCC eliminates net neutrality, then corporations will not only control the speed of the internet, they’ll control what information you’re given access to. They’ll be able to set the price tag so high that only those with the deepest pockets will have websites that load quickly and smoothly. Without net neutrality, the internet will effectively become a class system.

Get involved. Your freedom of speech may very well depend on it.

Faking it – Low carb pumpkin pudding

The only thing about autumn eating that I love more than pumpkin is pumpkin spice. I find it fascinating that this particular blend of spices really does only work in the presence of pumpkin. You could put cinnamon and cloves together; you could put cinnamon and nutmeg together; you could even put cinnamon and ginger together. But somehow putting cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg and ginger together on anything other than pumpkin just tastes… wrong.

Unfortunately, in my quest to spend the impending winter whittling away my existing fat stores, I needed to find a way to enjoy my favorite seasonal flavor responsibly. If you get a 12oz Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks (the smallest size available) it contains an impressive 38g of sugar. As delicious as it may be, it’s not so delicious that I’m going to risk diabetes for it. Considering I’ve had some good luck recently at faking other foods, I figured I could manage a guilt-free pumpkin dessert.

pumpkin-pudding-ingredients

This recipe, while low carb, is not exactly what I would call clean eating. It still calls for some processed food, but I’m ok with that since it’s just an occasional treat and not a regular meal item. For people who are strictly paleo or generally anti-processed, I’d be curious to hear your input on how to sub out ingredients to make this all-natural.

For this flavor explosion, you will need:

  • 15oz can of pumpkin (or about 1 3/4 cup homemade pumpkin puree)
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 4-serving box of instant sugar-free pudding mix (I prefer either cheesecake or butterscotch flavor)
  • Vanilla extract (to taste)
  • Your favorite pumpkin spice blend (I went with cinnamon, ground ginger, and ground nutmeg)

So, here’s the thing with me and spices – I don’t measure them. Ever. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that I get a good feel for how much is needed and I trust my gut. For this recipe you could use pre-mixed pumpkin pie spice. I decided not to because I wanted to leave out the cloves from a cold dessert. A good rule of thumb for this particular mix is half as much ginger as cinnamon, then half as much nutmeg as ginger. I was a little heavy-handed with both the ginger and the nutmeg in my most recent batch, which gave it a very slightly spicy, savory kick. Still delicious.

pumpkin-and-spices

Assembling it is fairly straightforward:

  • Carefully mix together the pumpkin, vanilla, spices, and half of the coconut milk into a large bowl. Make sure the bowl is about twice as big as the volume of pumpkin, because you need room for the liquid to slosh around while you mix it in. I learned this lesson the messy way.
  • Slowly stir in the pudding powder until it’s completely incorporated. Then, carefully stir in the rest of the coconut milk.
  • If you have the willpower for portion control, leave the pudding in the large bowl. If you prefer to set yourself some boundaries, portion the pudding into 6 individual servings. Let it chill in the fridge for at least an hour before eating (overnight for best results).

The first time I ate this, I’m pretty sure my eyes rolled into the back of my head. It tastes like pumpkin pie filling, but without the lingering malaise that always seems to follow pie consumption. If you’re looking for a crust substitution, try topping it with some toasted almonds or pecans. This is also a great way to fancy it up for dinner guests, who will have no clue the pudding they’re scarfing down is basically a health food.

pumpkin-pudding-whipped-cream