Sunday, December 17, 2006


Gift Guide for Real Geeks of all Ages

There's only one week left before Christmas, if you need help searching for last minute gifts for that special geek (or if you are through with Christmas this year and are looking ahead), then I have some recommendations for you. Most geek gift guides are really gift guides for early adopters with rich friends. Or for rich friends of early adopters. This is an attempt at a guide for buying gifts for makers, hackers, real geeks, and other Sons of Martha (amateur and professional alike). I have categorized the entries by age group and highlighted one gift in each category. If anyone has good recommendations for geek gifts that I did not include, please add them in the comments. I'll try to maintain this as a useful resource for geek gift givers.

The top choice for this first age group is a Brain Box electronics kit. It is like Legos for electronics. The principle is similar to those old "101 electrical experiments" kits but with one key improvement. The components are molded into handy, color-coded, plastic building blocks. These building blocks have metal snaps on the end that both hold the circuits together and provide the electrical connection necessary. This battery-powered circuit building kit is a great way to introduce young geeks to the fundamentals of electricity without needing solder or breadboards. Embedding the electrical components in big colorful building blocks make it unlikely that they will be lost or have their leads broken off. Both of which are a real possibility with young experimenters. The one disadvantage is that the manual does not explain the principles behind the circuits well enough for my taste. If the experiment kit is going to be used by a parent or other older geek to illustrate the basics of electrical circuits, then that is not a problem. Otherwise you should get a children's book on electrical fundamentals to go along with the kit. The kits are sometimes hard to get in the States but worth the trouble.

Legos. These need no explanation and are really good for geeks of all ages. Even adult geeks use them as components in experiments and prototypes. Plus they're always fun to play with. 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.

Basic Hand Tools. Build something with them or take something apart. Geeks are tool users. Whether it is a camera or an oscilloscope geeks will be using tools their whole lives. Get young geeks started with some basic tools and teach them how to use them correctly and care for them (if you don't know, this is a good opportunity to learn). Build something with them. The Craftsman Kids Club is a good place to get project ideas. Then take apart some broken appliances with them. Teach them to put the removed parts aside in a neat fashion so they know how to reassemble it. Just make sure they understand to only take apart approved junk or you will find your favorite household items in pieces one day!

Gardening Kit. Something else geeks need is patience, and there's nothing that builds that like watching grass grow. Yes, I am serious.

Books. Like a lot of other young geeks, my favorite book to look through during late elementary school was National Geographic's Universe. Now we know much more about astronomy, and the information in the book is out of date. The closest thing to this currently seems to be DK's Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide. The publisher DK also has a lot of well illustrated books that elementary school aged geeks should enjoy (and I wish were available when I was that age), such as Dinosaur, Pirate, and the DK Illustrated Family Encyclopedia.

The centerpiece of this should be Advice to a Young Scientist by P.B. Medawar, the old Dress for Success and Live for Success books by John T. Molloy, and Paul Graham's Hackers and Painters. Geeks often develop problems with social skills and grooming or dressing habits. The last three books approach these topics from a geek perspective and so their explanations of things will resonate with a geek reader. I have a link to some of Graham's short essays in the monographs section of the blogroll. Reading the essays What You'll Wish You'd Known and Why Nerds are Unpopular will give you a taste of his writing. The information in these books can save an adolescent geek a lot of heartache (but not all of it). You'll probably have to get the Molloy books used from some place like or Bookfinder, but they are worth the trouble to track down. While you are at it you might also try to get a copy of his book How to Work the Competition Into the Ground for even more geeky analysis of human nature. Regardless of what Molloy says about business fashion, discourage them from carrying a briefcase to school. Molloy's books are good because his method of looking at human interactions will appeal to and make sense to a young geek, not because business fashion advice is appropriate for school. Medawar's book was intended for aspiring scientists, but it is a good preview of what young geeks can expect from life in any technical field.

Don't get them biographies of famous geeks. Most of the famous geeks' contemporaries didn't understand them so a modern liberal arts graduate is not likely to either. Instead, get them autobiographies and other books written by famous geeks. Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin, and My Life and Work by Henry Ford are good starters.

For periodicals, get them a subscription to Make Magazine and/or Popular Science. Popular Science is like the People Magazine of geeks, but is fun reading for youngsters.

For fiction, get them any of the Mad Scientist Club books by Bertrand R. Brinley. At least one of Robert Heinlein's "juvenile novels" should be included; Tunnel in the Sky is a good choice. And, of course, you'll want to get them C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia books if they didn't already get them in elementary school.

For reference get them the Boy Scout Handbook or Cadette Girl Scout Handbook (even if they aren't a scout)and Asimov's Chronology of the World.

For audio/visual material, get them a Smartflix gift certificate so they can check out do-it-yourself DVDs on any topic that catches their interest.

Except for the fiction, some of these items may seem too advanced for geeks of this age. Kids like to get a glimpse of the adult world, and can understand a lot more complicated material than they are usually given credit for. Also, this material should stay in their personal libraries their entire lives and it is better for them to get it "too soon" and then go back and re-read the material later when they need it (saying to themselves suddenly "Ah, that's why they wrote that!") than to get it too late to do them any good.

A Custom Lego Kit. It is a little hard to wrap, but you could let your geek make their own Custom Lego Creation and pay for the pieces needed to make it. Really, this is a good gift even into geek adulthood.

Models. Train, Rocket, Car, Airplane, whatever they're into. Start with simple ones unless they have experience.

Hobby Tools. This could be anything from cooking utensils to camping gear to computer hardware depending on what hobbies the young geek is interested in. There is the temptation to skimp on kid's hobby tools because they are more likely to loose them, break them, or leave them in the back of the closet when their interests suddenly change. The problem is that if you get them items of too low quality their frustration at getting things to work can drive them away from an otherwise interesting endeavor, and does not promote the habits of caring for one's tools. It is generally better to get fewer basic tools of a reputable (though not necessarily luxurious) brand than a complete set of cheap crap. If they stick with the hobby, then they can expand beyond the basics. If they change hobbies, as is common with young geeks sampling many interests, then the fewer quality tools take less room in the back of the closet than a whole set of cheap ones.

Observational Equipment. Telescope, Microscope, Camera, etc. They should be mature enough not to break them now. These should be bought with the same attitude as hobby tools: A workhorse introductory model from a reputable source, not too cheap, but not extravagant and complex either.

A Class on Touch Typing. If they get fast enough typing by the "hunt and peck" method then they will never learn the even faster method of typing correctly. For a computer user the skill is an amazing timesaver.

Gift Certificates: Good places to get gift certificates for young geeks include comic book stores and gaming stores. The fashion for items in these categories change fast enough that it's best to give them the gift certificates and let them pick whatever their friends are reading/playing.

Games: Despite what I said earlier about getting gift certificates, Cheapass games make good stocking stuffers.

In high-school science classes the young geek will have to give his calculator a considerable workout. Get him started on the right foot by buying him a calculator capable of using reverse polish notation (abbreviated RPN). Once mastered, this system speeds complex calculations and gives them an edge on math-intensive tests. If the young geek goes into a calculation-intensive career, then knowing how to use reverse polish notation will literally save them many man-weeks of effort over their lifetime! This is the reason that the RPN capable Hewlett Packard calculator is almost a badge of office for engineers. Learning to use a reverse polish notation calculator is easy, and will take only an hour or so of doing calculations that way before it seems natural. Old habits die hard, however, and a geek that learns to use a complex traditional graphing calculator in school may be hesitant to adopt the superior RPN system just because he "grew up" with the slower method. This will put the non-RPN using geek at a disadvantage in college when competing against their RPN-calculator-using peers. When they finally switch to RPN they will curse themselves for having wasted so much time doing it the hard way in their youth. Most high-school students won't know enough about calculators to request an RPN capable calculator, so you'll have to give it to them. Hewlett Packard is one of the few companies to make RPN calculators, and until the Hydrix Qonos is built the only one currently doing so. Fortunately HP calculators have a great reputation amoung geeks. Unfortunately Texas Instruments has such a powerful marketing group that some schools may actually require students to get a non-RPN-capable Texas Instruments graphing calculator instead. Consider getting them both if you have to. If the young geek takes a calculation-intensive college major or career, then the skill at RPN will be worth the investment. The least expensive RPN choice is the HP-33s, but it doesn't have graphing capability that some classes will claim to require. The least expensive RPN graphing calculator is the HP-48gii and is a perfectly good calculator for even advanced geeks. Many users actually even prefer the older, discontinued version of the HP-48 model line because they think it has better ergonomics, a proven track-record of ruggedness (a feature useful to a geek who does field work and expects his calculator to be a lifetime investment), and a well developed collection of after-market accessories. These users go through the trouble of tracking down used ones instead of buying the newer HP models. Of course most geeks have a soft spot for the 'latest and greatest' gadget which for RPN calculators is the HP-50G. In addition to an RPN calculator, you might also get them additional documentation to help them more quickly master it.

Video Game Consoles: Yes, everybody's asking for a PS3, Wii, or Xbox360. If you have a real electronics or computer geek, then get them their own build-it-yourself game console kit or their own build-it-yourself handheld game kit.

Electronics kit. Heathkit is gone, but there are still companies making hobby kits for electronics geeks.

Books and Magazines. Make Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, and/or Discover Magazine. If they don't already have the non-fiction books mentioned in the MIDDLE SCHOOL AGE GEEK GIFTS section above, then those are excellent choices. Science fiction (as opposed to 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. Fantasy can still be fun, however; and it's hard to go wrong with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books. If they liked Chronicles of Narnia then get them some of C.S. Lewis's more obscure works like Out of the Silent Planet, Present Concerns, The Screwtape Letters, or Till We Have Faces. Even though it is not often thought of as science fiction, C.S. Forrester's series of books about the fictional British Naval officer (and model for James T. Kirk) Horatio Hornblower will probably appeal to geeks and science fiction fans as much as if they had been set in deep space instead of on the high seas. There is also a Horatio Hornblower A&E series available but I recommend seeing it after reading the books, and I also recommend reading the books in the order they were written instead of the order they occur. With non-fiction it is generally better to get them books by other geeks (though not necessarily ones that are in the same field of interest as the reader) than to get them popular books. Consider 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. Additional good nonfiction books to consider are the massive McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Science & Technology, the even larger The Engineering Handbook, the old How to Lie With Statistics, and the more recent How to Lie With Maps. If you don't know what books to get, just click on a few of the links and buy them. All of the links here lead to books that I and/or other geeks I know consider both good and of broad appeal despite their sometimes specialized topics. Geeks generally have diverse taste and usually love reading a wide variety of books.

Legos. Mindstorms or a Custom Lego Creation.

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, bookstore, camping store, Warehouse 23, or from Smartflix . They will appreciate it a lot (geeks are practical that way).

Games. Cheapass games, Settlers of Catan, and the aforementioned gift certificates.

Geeks are sometimes stereotyped as loners. Any technically demanding activity, howerver, requires a social support structure for exchanging ideas and expertice. These technical clubs and societies are also important for making friends with common interests, finding mentors to provide advice and moral support, and making connections for doing business and smoothing career advancement. Membership in at least one technical society or club in a geek's field of interest is a huge asset if they take advantage of it for more than just the free newsletter. Encourage college aged geeks to join their professional society or hobby club by offering to pay for their membership fee. Fortunately most professional societies offer discounts for student membership. There are hobby clubs for just about every possible avocation. Here is a partial list of professional societies in engineering and science. If you really want to splurge, pay their way to a convention, swap-meet, or conference on their favorite pass-time.

Most all of the ideas suggested in the HIGH SCHOOL AGE GEEK GIFTS section above, especially including books and gift certificates, are also good for college age and older geeks. Additionally, by this time most geeks should be worldly enough to appreciate the classic work on organizational behavior, Parkinson's Law by C. Northcote Parkinson.

Toys. Adult geeks can get nostalgic and often have less qualms about seeming immature about their quirks. As a result toys are often a good gift for adult geeks. Thinkgeek has a good selection, but they are missing some essentials like the Magic 8ball. Silly Putty, Etch-a-Sketch, Easy Bake Ovens, or toy guns. And don't forget the Legos and Brainboxes.

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, pistols and rifles (for shooters), 22lr pistols (even non-shooters should at least have a .22), home electronics, clothes, lighters, cameras, games, 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.

Disaster preparedness kits. Guys in general, but geeks especially have some attraction to planning for disasters. Perhaps it is something primal that goes back to when life was a constant struggle against nature and other tribes. Buy them a pocket multitool, small survival tin, emergency pouch, "bugout bag" or roadside survival kit. Even if they don't secretly enjoy imagining themselves civilization, they will appreciate the gift the next time the weather turns bad. Get them some classic survival fiction to read while waiting for the end of the world as we know it. Whatever survival kit you give (or keep) I suggest adding Stainwipes for 'emergencies' of the more mundane type. Also, you can get one of those vacuum sealers and seal up a pair of clean socks, underwear, and handtowel. They will seem like an amazing luxury when the recipient is soaking wet and away from home.

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.

This post evolved from last year's Christmas geek gift guide.

Update: An additional geek gift idea from Somewhat Frank (who also has a good review of other geek gift lists) is a lapdesk and nightlight. Engtech has a series of six posts full of book, movies, games and T-shirts that provide more ideas for adult geeks.

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Thanks for the recommendation of the SmartFlix gift certificates...we think they're a great gift idea too!

(and I have to concur with your recommendation of _Tunnel in the Sky_ - an excellent Heinlein novel, indeed!)
Thanks for some great ideas. You made the Geeks in my family very happy!
Love this list, check out Yamie Chess too: educational toys for strengthening student's math ability in the classroom:
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