Thursday, December 01, 2005


Geek Gift Ideas

Instapundit was recently complaining about the poor quality of Wired’s geek gift guide, so I thought that I’d put up some geek gift suggestions of my own. Wired’s guide seems focused more on early adopters with rich friends*, whereas mine is more oriented toward finding gifts for hackers and other real geeks.

1. A subscription to Make magazine.

2. For geeks too young to read Make (or even those who aren’t) try Legos. Since geeks like to be creative, don’t bother with a specific kit just buy them a whole Tub o’ bricks so their imagination can run wild. It is a little hard to wrap, but you could also let your geek make their own Custom Creation and pay for the pieces needed to make it.

3. Books by Geeks. Geeks usually like to read and have a diverse taste in books. Generally it is better to get them books by other geeks (though not necessarily ones in the same field of study as the reader) than to get them popular books. If you are a friend or relative worried about a young geek who isn’t popular or dresses poorly I strongly recommend tracking down the Dress for Success and Live for Success books by John T. Molloy because he approaches these topics from a geek perspective and so his explanations of things will resonate with a geek reader. I can recommend Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters for the same reason (I have a link to some of his short essays in the monographs section of the blogroll). All three would make a great collection for a young geek. It is often better to get books by famous geeks than to get biographies of them, if you can. What common biographer could explain to a geek how Richard Feynman studied physics or how Henry Ford revolutionized manufacturing better than they themselves? None, most of these super-geek’s contemporaries didn’t understand them so a modern liberal arts graduate is not likely to either. Don’t overlook buying them a copy of some geeky classic works, especially in their field of interest. Modern textbooks distill and filter the great works of geek history to make them more easily digested. That’s fine for educating the bulk of the population, but geeks often gain insights from the original source materials that are missing from the reprocessed, regurgitated version told to schoolchildren. Bookfinder is a good source for used versions of these, and you can sometimes get antique printings of geek classics in good condition for surprisingly low prices. Science fiction (as opposed to fantasy or space opera) is typically very popular with geeks, and some geeky science fiction authors are Heinlein, Asimov, Brinley, Pournelle, Niven, Gerrold, Stephenson, Forward, Taylor, Turtledove, Crichton, Clarke, and Clarke. Lastly, with the Narnia movie coming out soon C.S. Lewis books are going to be popular. Since geeks like something different, pass on the Chronicles of Narnia (which they probably read in grade school anyway**) and get them some of his more obscure works like Out of the Silent Planet, Present Concerns, The Screwtape Letters, or Till We Have Faces.

4. Classic Items. Despite being stereotyped as liking only the latest “high tech” developments, most geeks actually have a soft spot for classic devices (especially those they can use in their field or everyday life). Good “classic” gifts for geeks include slide rules, pocket knives, pens (I prefer pencils myself), watches, guns (for shooters), 22lr pistols (even non-shooters should at least have a .22), home electronics, clothes, cameras and games. The key element is not age itself or kitsch, but instead the appreciation for a design that is so streamlined or ingenious combined with such quality workmanship that a product is nearly perfect and needs no changes. As a result items that are new but still well-enough designed and made that they are likely to become “future classics” are often just as appreciated. Some of the new pocket flashlights are good examples of this.

5. Toys. Thinkgeek has a good selection, but they are missing some essentials like the Magic 8ball. Silly Putty, Etch-a-Sketch, or toy guns.

6. Gift certificates. I know people sometimes don’t like to give gift certificates because they are afraid it will be viewed as a “last minute” or “half @$$#)” gift. Consider them anyway for hobby related presents. They are not only appreciated when they are received, they are also appreciated later when the recipient uses them to get exactly the item that they want and that you would never have thought of. Unless the geek you are shopping for has specifically mentioned some item that they need but haven’t gotten yet or you share the same hobby, then odds are you will not be able to pick out good hobby related gifts for a geek. The chances that you can find some item that your geek friend or relative would really find useful in his hobby but that he doesn’t know about are microscopic. Reading Internet or catalog ads and talking to salesmen or co-workers that have an uncle who knows something aren’t going to help you. Instead of getting them that gadget that they either already have or that they passed up because they know the manufacture has a reputation for overpriced, unreliable junk just get them a gift certificate from their favorite hardware store, computer store, hobby shop, gun store, comic book and game shop, cooking store, camera shop or bookstore. They will appreciate it a lot (geeks are practical that way).

7. And for really hard-core geeks, get them their very own lab coat and safety glasses.

If you liked this list, you may also like my geek vacation ideas.

*or perhaps more accurately, rich friends of early adopters.

** assuming that they aren't young enough to still be in grade school; in which case go ahead and get them the Narnia books.

Update: Does anyone have a suggestion for a replacement of the old Heathkit projects? Also, Technical Video Rental says that they will redesign their website by around Dec. 15th to allow them to sell gift certificates; that (or tuition for an in-person class of some kind) would be another great hobby gift.

Update 2 (12/2/5): Welcome Instapundit readers. I encourage you to look around the rest of the blog, and if you like what you see consider making Ideas in Progress a regular stop on your walk throught the blogosphere.

If you mean the old HeathKit build-it-yourself kits, Ramsey Electronics has some nifty ones. I'd certainly keep a Plasma Generator on MY desk!

Heathkit gave me another gift idea... for the ham radio geek go with them to a local ham or computer show. I picked up an old Heathkit transceiver for around 25 bucks years ago, and operated with it for a long time. If your geek isn't a Ham, see if he/she is interested in amateur radio and buy them books that teach you what you need to know to get your license. (I think many geeks would like ham radio, you get to have a whole bunch of nifty electronic stuff, AND learn morse code!)
for the science geeks
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