Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Geek Gift Guide

Christmas is coming up soon, so it’s time for the 3rd annual Ideas In Progress geek gift guide. Most geek gift guides are really gift guides for early adopters with rich friends. This is an attempt at a guide for buying gifts for makers, hackers, real geeks, and other Sons of Martha (amateur and professional alike). Last year we divided up the entries by age group and highlighted one gift in each category. This year we’ve added a new category of gifts under $20, for those who are on a budget, need a little stocking stuffer, or have pulled the name of a geek in a secret Santa drawing.

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.

Gifts under $20
Elementary School Geek Gifts
Middle School Geek Gifts
High School Geek Gifts
College and Older Geek Gifts

The top choice in cheap geek gifts is a set of magnetic shapes that can provide endless hours of creative, sculpture-building entertainment during otherwise wasted time such as waiting on hold, updating your operating system, updating your computer’s operating system, or staff meetings. Do not use while operating heavy machinery.


Construction Toys. Besides the Ball of Whacks, there are other construction toys that a geek can keep at their desk or in their room to fiddle with periodically. Acrobots and similar items are good desk toys for adults but should not be given to children because if they swallow one magnet then they may pass it safely but if they swallow two or more magnets they will need to be taken to the doctor! Magnetic sculptures are also fun, cheap desk toys but like all magnetic-based gifts they must be kept away from magnetic stripes, tapes, and disks. There are lots of neat Lego kits for under $20, that would be fun for children or adult geeks alike; there are even a few under $10. If Legos are a little too clichéd or modern then you could get them a Lincoln Logs kit, Erector set, or Tinkertoys.

Cool Science Demonstrators. Another set of ‘toys’ that both young and old geeks enjoy are those that either demonstrate or rely upon the clever use of some basic natural law. Cheap classic examples of these are the radiometer, praxinoscope, and the drinking bird. Modern cheapies include the airzooka and supercool handwarmers. After you give it to them, ask them to explain how it works.

Tools. It is hard to buy tools for geeks unless you share the same interests as them or they give you a wish-list. There are some inexpensive tools that are an exception to this because even if a geek already has one (and they probably do) then they can put spares in a desk drawer, glove compartment, or tool box so that they always have one close at hand. Knives, screwdriver sets, multi-tools, first aid or emergency kits, pick-up tools, paint pens, small flashlights, and flashlight accessories are good examples of these Bic Stics of tools. If shopping for a computer or digital camera geek you might also consider a USB card reader and/or memory card.

Books. There are a lot of books listed in this gift guide for both young and adult geeks, and many of them are less than $20. Good ones are:

The Mad Scientist’s Club and The Dangerous Book for Boys/The Daring Book for Girls for elementary school geeks,
any of the Heinlein juveniles and the Boy Scout/Girl Scout manual for middle school geeks,
Hackers and Painters and Advice to a Young Scientist for high school geeks,
Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman and My Life and Work for college students, and
Parkinson's Law and Everybody Wins! for older geeks.

T-Shirts. If your favorite geek wears T-shirts around (and many do), then Internet Duct Tape has a very good list of geeky T-shirts ideal for Christmas giving.

Portable booklight or lap desk. If they don’t already have one, that is.

Video. Most geeks like science fiction and/or fantasy, but (much like tools) finding videos to get them can be tricky. If they go around quoting Yoda or dress up like a Star Trek security officer for Halloween, then they probably already have all the Star Wars, Star Trek, and other staples of the genre. If you are determined to try and get them a video anyway, then here are some for under $20 that a geek would probably like, but might not already have: Primer, Destination Moon, Tycoon, The Prestige, The Andromeda Strain and Zulu. For younger geeks consider Tron, Wargames, Groundhog Day, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, and The Last Starfighter.

Office Products. If your favorite office geek goes around quoting lines from Office Space, then get them a red Swingline stapler. Otherwise, get them a staple-less stapler. The combination highlighter and Post-It flag dispenser is a handy pen for scholarly geeks.

Gift Certificates. Giving gift certificates is an elegant solution to the geek gift problem. It lets you pick out a gift quickly and easily, while the recipient gets something that will be very useful. If there’s one thing geeks appreciate, it is an elegant solution to a problem.

TOP CHOICE: A BRAIN BOX KIT.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.

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 new The Dangerous Book for Boys/The Daring Book for Girls pair of books make a great gift for the young boy or girl geek (respectively) and can also be enjoyed by older readers.

Basic Hand Tools. Build something with them or take something apart. Geeks are tool users. Whether it is a camera or 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.

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 for yourself 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, Craft Magazine, Popular Mechanics and/or Popular Science. Some older geeks may turn their noses up last two “popular” magazines, but they are fun reading for younger geeks.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.

Advanced Lego or Brainbox Kits. By now the young geek should be ready to tackle some of the more complicated Technic Lego kits and/or the advanced Brainbox 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 lose 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 among 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. Unfortunately the build-it-yourself handheld game kit is sold out right now.

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

Books and Magazines. Make Magazine, Craft 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 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. Gift certificates are gaining in popularity as gifts, but there are still some people who view it as a "last minute" or "half @$$#)" gift. Ignore those people and consider giving gift certificates for geek 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).

One potential problem with gift cards, as Tyler from Marginal Revolutions has observed, is that they can cost more than the value of the card! A geeky solution to this is to give stamps instead of gift cards or cash. They are usually prettier than gift cards and unlike cash they can show that you put some thought into the gift. Plus, everybody needs stamps. There are some really neat geeky stamps that you could give. For an economics geek, give them a book of forever stamps and ask the recipient what the rate of return on them will be. Another geek stamp gift you can give is to combine a photograph of the recipient, a little elbow grease with Photoshop, and the U.S. Post Office’s custom stamp program to create a fake (though perfectly legal) plate of Great American series stamps in commemoration of your favorite young geek’s future accomplishments. The custom stamp idea still winds up with a higher cost than monetary value, but sometimes money isn’t everything.

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

Geeks are sometimes stereotyped as loners. Any technically demanding activity, however, requires a social support structure for exchanging ideas and expertise. 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 guy 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 rebuilding 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.

christmas gifts , geek+gift , hacker+gifts , gift+guide


I thought you might want to check out the gift list for girls/women from the Girls Gone Geek show ( It was featured in the New York Daily News the other day.
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