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The top geek gift of 2008

xkcd
An MIT student models xkcd's
"Stand Back, I'm Going to Try
Science" T-shirt in a geeky setting.


You had to know that this year's top gift for science geeks would relate to what is arguably the top Web comic for science geeks: xkcd.

We asked you to send in your suggestions for holiday gifts that would bring a smile to science and technology fans, and then we offered up a list of 16 suggestions for your consideration. Hundreds of Cosmic Log readers cast their ballot in an ironically unscientific Live Vote - and the top vote-getter was (drumroll, please) ... a sweatshirt (or T-shirt) inspired by the xkcd strip.

This means that the geek who suggested the gift - Andrew Meeusen of Mesa, Ariz. - will find a couple of extra holiday goodies under his tree (or in his mailbox): the "When We Left Earth" DVD set, which features high-resolution retellings of the moonshot sagas; and "13 Things That Don't Make Sense," Michael Brooks' book about the most baffling scientific mysteries of our time.

Other gifts, including the coffee-table books "Planetology" and "Hubble: Imaging Space and Time," will be distributed as consolation prizes.

Meeusen was tickled to hear that the xkcd shirt was a hit - and so was xkcd's creator, Randall Munroe. For more than three years, Munroe has been serving up a comic strip that uses simple stick figures to expose the wonderful and baffling complexities of science and engineering - as well as the even more wonderful and baffling complexities of love and life.

If you think "Dilbert" is just too mainstream, you'll love xkcd. (By the way, the lowercase letters don't stand for anything and don't come trippingly off the tongue, which is part of the joke.)

"It actually took off pretty rapidly," Munroe told me today. "The Web has made it so that you can aim something at a niche audience. You can offer something that only 1 or 2 percent find funny - but if that 1 or 2 percent really like it, then you have a few million readers."

Munroe, whose degree is in physics, once worked on robots at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia - but he now lives in Boston, "shipping T-shirts and drawing this comic full-time."

xkcd
The xkcd comic strip deals with affairs of the
heart as well as affairs of the brain.


T-shirts and other merchandise are all part of the equation for financial success: If you like the strip, you just might buy the shirt - or perhaps one of those classic posters that map online communities or illustrate cosmic orders of magnitude. The T-shirt serves as an outward sign of inward geek grace.

Munroe likes the idea of providing something that resonates with a special kind of crowd. "It's a much more personal connection than most media," Munroe said. "People have told me, 'This is about my life.' They feel like it's very personal in a way that most media isn't, because I'm writing about something that's in their experience."

That's definitely the feeling that inspired Meeusen's suggestion:

"I have always wanted an xkcd sweatshirt. Those comics are tailored to the geekiest among us, from Schrodinger's cat references to dreaming about building a supercomputer out of rocks in a desert to calculate the universe while sitting in class (come on, who hasn't done that before?!). In his store, the 'Stand Back, I'm Going To Try Science' T-shirt (also one I'd like to own someday) is classic geek, and honestly, who wouldn't be proud to put up a poster of the online world, with a grossly oversized MySpace-land and a vast Noob Sea?

"I'm not working for xkcd, but when my friend turned me on to the comics back in college, I've been a huge fan ever since! Go geeks!"

Here's hoping somebody gives him a nice shirt for the holidays - and not the button-down variety.

For still more suggestions, check out TODAY's list of 10 geek gifts (from Wired magazine), the top tech toys for kids, PC World's selection of tech toys for the filthy rich, and our assorted line-ups of top video games.