Gift certificates, spindles of blank 700MB CD-Rs, an all-expenses-paid vacation to Frye's Electronics in beautiful downtown Burbank when it's cold up here along the 49th

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Merry Geekmas, Happy Hanerdkah

The gearhead's guide to generosity

Gift certificates, spindles of blank 700MB CD-Rs, an all-expenses-paid vacation to Frye's Electronics in beautiful downtown Burbank when it's cold up here along the 49th parallel—really, geeks aren't hard to buy for, as long as you don't try anything creative. Let me repeat that: Do not, do NOT, dear civilians, buy a present for your geek unless that geek has told you exactly what he or she wants.

Nothing personal. You must understand that the art of selecting nerd toys is an index of how big our brains are, a stringent measure of how wise we are in the ways of manufacturers and upgrades and what's coming out in a few weeks; that'll make the tacky, overhyped gizmos you're eyeing look like chew toys. Your eyes glaze over the other 11 months of the year when we try to tell you about this stuff—stop now before you hurt yourself.

Besides, most of us either buy stuff we want before you've even heard of it (early adopters) or prefer to build our own out of a pack of chewing gum and some string (gearheads). MP3 equipment? Got three pocket players and a 6GB jukebox. Games? Tons. New mouse or trackball? Pardon me, but that's an intimate, personal decision up there with tattoo design and briefs vs. boxers. A faster Net hookup? Qworst (formerly U S Worst) isn't answering your phone calls any faster than it is ours.

So scram. Shoo. Music section's that way.

OK, now that we've got those guys out of here, I assume that whoever's left is the opposite number: a geek wanting to buy stuff for other people. After all, a gift from a geek is by definition a geek gift, right? And how hard can it be to buy for civilians? You don't even need to know their model number.

Still, you'll want your gifts to be ineffably geekish in some respect so they'll remember which ones are from you and not ask you to troubleshoot any of the other electronic debris they find under the (insert your preferred holiday foliage here). It should be fun, too, because being a geek is fun, even when you're balefully contemplating a holiday studded with questions from technophobic aunts and uncles about whether the whole dot-com thing wasn't just a big pyramid scam after all.

And if you care enough about folks to one-click-shop for them, you just might like them enough to try to turn them geekish, as well. To that end, consider the following charming toys for techno-ignorant loved ones:

For bonding: Lego Mindstorms, the Vision Command edition ($99.99, www.legomindstorms.com), in which you build and program your own Legorific robots that can see. You'll bond so thoroughly you won't go home—at least, not until they try getting you to fix Grandpa's 10-year-old dot matrix printer.

For convincing them that sitting in the house with the computer is as macho as screwing around with nonsilicon gear in the garage: Tonka Power Tools ($49.99, www.hasbro-interactive.com). The power-drill-looking peripheral has 24 "virtual tool tips," enabling you to do everything from build a birdhouse to change a tire. None of your adult relatives worth hanging out with will care that this one's sold as a kiddie game, trust me.

For bringing them over to the dark side (since they're going to harangue you about Napster and MP3s at dinner anyway, why not get them hooked?): A decent MP3 player—perhaps the Nike PSA[Play ($299.99, www.2dnet.com) or Iomega's HipZip ($299.99, www.gamerdepot.com)—will help them feel in tune with current events, and you'll never have to walk them through shopping on CDnow again.

For fellow geeks: Fast, cheap, and out-of-the-box, the kiddie toys aisle at your local Fred Meyer or Best Buy is full of delicious little chip-embedded doodads—organizers, hand-held games, "laser voice messagers," and the like—just begging to be perverted to geekish ends by industrious, creative hacker-nerds. (Think Speak & Spell, the teaching toy that taught so many of us the joy of creative hacking.) This could be the gearhead equivalent of buying a big jigsaw puzzle for the family to put together on those chilly winter nights in the den—fun for the whole gang, especially when you get the Barbie Magic Genie Bottle ($39.99, www.gamezone.com) to grant wishes Mattel never authorized. They cost next to nothing, so buy a bunch; maybe we can figure out how to mate them with Let's Pretend Elmo ($29.99, www.etoys.com) and breed our own Aibo ($1,500, www.aibo.com).

They'll love you, and you won't hate yourself—not even for chasing them away from hapless sojourns into the Wal-Mart electronics department. And if I keep even one well-meaning mommy from buying her Linux-loving baby a copy of Macintosh for Dummies, I've done my good deed for the holidays.

Angela Gunn is a staff writer at Seattle Weekly.

 
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