My cheap & cheerful last-minute 2020 gift guide

Raspberry Pi 400 & Pi Hole

This year, we’ve gotten way too much screen time. So I concede it’s a little perverse to recom­mend another computer. But if an iPhone 12 is the double bacon cheese­burger of screen time—ugh, that thing holds no interest—then the Rasp­berry Pi 400 is a kale protein smoothie. This is a charming and surpris­ingly powerful Linux-based computer pack­aged into a keyboard for about $100. It plugs into any HDMI display, including your TV.

If you fear Linux systems, don’t panic—the Rasp­berry Pi isn’t designed to intim­i­date. It’s designed for learning and fun. Making things with the Rasp­berry Pi isn’t always easy. But it’s always satis­fying and whole­some in a way that, say, waiting for the newest Office 365 update to finish installing is not.

What can you build with the Rasp­berry Pi? Some ideas here. For now, I’m using mine to run Pi Hole, an amazing internet ad blocker that keeps inva­sive trackers off your entire home network. I’d recom­mend getting a Rasp­berry Pi for the nerdiest 12-year-old you know, but what­ever. Let them have TikTok. Keep the Pi for your­self.

Schaedler Precision Rules

Please don’t call them “rulers”. At about $25 each, these are the most magnif­i­cently overengi­neered measuring devices you will ever own: fantas­ti­cally precise, easy to read, feather light, yet also ridicu­lously tough. I’ve had my current set for about 20 years and use them several times a week. Even the Schaedler company’s untouched-since-1995 website is perfect in its utter refusal to give more than zero fu...dges.

Littlejohn’s English Toffee

If you’ve visited me in Cali­fornia, you’ve prob­ably received a box of this as a gift, which I consider the single greatest confec­tion in LA county. No, wait—like you, I was a toffee hater too. Hard, sticky, achingly sweet. But then I had this toffee and real­ized: I was just a toffee snob. The texture is smooth and mild, but the secret to Little­john’s is the finely crushed nuts on the surface, which perfectly offset the inte­rior. Someday, my wife & I hope to make a one-pound box ($30) last more than 24 hours.

Medaglia D’Oro Instant Espresso

The only coffee I drink. Because I like good coffee. But I hate making it. As the label implies, this is deli­cious Italian espresso that’s been dehy­drated. All you do is add water. I usually have mine iced—it dissolves nicely in any temper­a­ture—but hot is excel­lent too. The small jars (about $5 each) are also easy to travel with (in case that ever happens again). Also a great gift for new parents, long-haul truckers, and for deflating coffee nerds who insist on telling you about grinding kopi luwak beans for their pour-over dripper, blah blah.*

* Yes, I recog­nize this is how many feel when I talk about typog­raphy

The Scorpion Express: 2020 update

My fourth annual review of the progress of vari­able fonts, a series which may be reaching its natural end, as the forward momentum of vari­able fonts seems to be petering out.

Advent of Code 2020

Finally, if you do any program­ming, the 2020 edition of Advent of Code has started. AOC offers a series of daily program­ming puzzle that get progres­sively more diffi­cult through the month. I feel a sense of frater­nity with the author, Eric Wastl, because like me, he writes and publishes the whole thing himself. It is fun, clever, and exceed­ingly well designed. I don’t always finish, but I do publish my solu­tions in Racket.

(I even licensed one of Eric’s 2015 puzzles for a tuto­rial in Beau­tiful Racket.)

Confi­den­tial to Jack Firth: I’m morally opposed to “dark mode” in GUIs because it’s premised on the idea that you can just flip the color palette and every­thing else will work the same. But for type, that’s not true: it’s sensi­tive to its context, because our eyeballs are like­wise sensi­tive. To remain equally legible, a dark-mode theme for a website can’t just flip the palette; it also needs to adjust the type—maybe size, weight, width, color. To be fair, I’m just as finicky about light mode: in Prac­tical Typog­raphy, I actu­ally serve slightly heavier fonts to Windows users because the Windows raster­izer doesn’t produce the beefy bitmaps that Mac OS does. That, in turn, is only possible because of how I designed my fonts. But since I’m still getting hate mail about the whole no-liga­tures thing, I don’t need to make a stand on this partic­ular hill.