Low End Theory: The Gift of Subtle Spite


By Brendan I. Koerner

There's a classic Family Ties episode in which Alex P. Keaton, having been cured of his anti-Christmas attitude by Dickensian specters, buys last-minute gifts for the family at the local Kwik-E-Mart. The gifts are absurd—cough syrup and the like—but the sitcom's message is clear: it's the thought that counts.

Yet what if your thoughts are less than kind, bordering on the wicked? Like when you're obligated to buy something for a co-worker you don't much care for, or for an uncle whose drunken tirades stopped being amusing around 1991. They bought you some irregular tube socks, so you sorta have to buy them something. So what can you conjure up on short notice, that's both cheap and capable of conveying the subtextual message, "I'm only getting this for you because society says I have to; if it were up to me, I'd much prefer that we never speak again"?

Sure, a box of Tide wrapped in Frosty the Snowman paper might do the trick. But since everyone knows you're a Geekish-American, they're probably expecting something from the gadgets realm. So if you're aim is to disappoint, yet still preserve your reputation as a gearhead, rocket past the jump for Low End Theory's first (and possibly last) annual gift guide for people who skeeve you out.

Gadget Grips
Price $5.95 from WeLoveMacs.com; or, if you've got a long list of frenemies, order 1,000 from Garrett Specialties and get a price break on down to $1.32 per package.
Their Reaction Elation followed by bewilderment. One of those products that seems incredibly useful on a 4 a.m. infomercial, but ends up languishing in your hallway closet for the next 18 years.
What It Says on Your Behalf "Maybe these work, maybe they don't. But, honestly, I don't really care what happens to your cellphone, iPod, or whatever other gadget you choose to balance precariously upon the dashboard of your yellow Ford Focus."

USB Vacuum Cleaner
Price $8.99 from TangShop.com
Their Reaction Offense taken. Giving someone a cleaning product is like telling them, "You've got the sanitary habits of a cracked-out warthog." Don't worry, though; the receiver will mask his or her disdain behind a sugary smile. Just be sure to watch your back in '07.
What It Says on Your Behalf "I could have gotten you a USB beverage warmer for six bucks more, but you're so not worth it."

Cell Phone Flash-Lite
Price $14.99 from SafetyEssentials.com
Their Reaction Mild concern. There's no better way to induce paranoia than to give someone a gift designed especially to help one survive a catastrophe.
What It Says on Your Behalf "Be afraid. Be very afraid. And happy holidays."

Low End Theory: The Gift of Subtle Spite

Excalibur Electronic Talking Texas Hold 'Em
Price $7.49 from Boscov's
Their Reaction Genuine happiness at first—I mean, hey, free game. But this gift is part of a long-term undermining strategy; you want the recipient to grow overconfident about their poker-playing abilities. Eventually, he/she will work up the nerve to spend a weekend in Atlantic City, where their family fortune will be squandered a la Julie Hagerty in Lost in America.
What It Says on Your Behalf "Welcome to the path of self-destruction, punk."

"My Computer is Faster Than Yours" Bumper Sticker
Price $5 from Directron.com
Their Reaction Utter disdain.
What It Says on Your Behalf "I know this is a longshot, but I'm totally hoping you actually slap this on your car. Because there's no surer way to invite a beating from Ricky Manning Jr.."

Child-Sized Optical Computer Mouse
Price $6.99 from MacMall.com
Their Reaction Anxiety; "Is there something wrong with the size of my child's hands?"
What It Says on Your Behalf "Your kid's hands are perfectly normal; I'm just trying to mess with your head."

Linkskey 4-Port Mini USB 2.0 Hub
Price $9.99 from our eternal pals at Newegg.com
Their Reaction Confusion. Your aunt thinks it's a newfangled cigarette lighter at first, then a telephone jack. You get to feel all intellectually superior as you explain the nuances of USB hub, in language that she can't possibly understand.
What It Says on Your Behalf "When the revolution comes, I'm gonna be given a sweetheart job in the Ministry of Peace and Technology; due to your obvious mental midgetry, you're gonna be assigned to a collectivized beet farm. I anxiously await that day."

NEXT WEEK: Rice cookers!

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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