Inside ThinkGeek

Mathew Honan at Wired has a wonderful profile of the geeky purveyor of gadgets and nerdy in-jokes. While the revenues cited are impressive, more so is how the company has managed to hang onto its values, even digging deeper with custom products designed and prototyped by their in-house Geek Labs.

In the 11 years since it was founded, ThinkGeek has become a sort of Sharper Image for sysadmins. You may have read a post on Gizmodo about the company’s Ladies of Star Wars playing cards or seen its T-shirts emblazoned with the chemical structure of caffeine on The Big Bang Theory. You may have received one of its Starfleet hip flasks at an office holiday party or spotted an Albert Einstein action figure on a coworker’s desk. For its target audience—sci-fi addicts, practical jokers, anyone who has ever worn a calculator watch—ThinkGeek inspires an Apple-like level of cultish adoration.

You can count me among that number though I do alright in keeping myself from sending all my discretionary income to Timmy, my monkey overlord. And if anyone from ThinkGeek is reading this, they have always been one of the few advertisers I would unhesitatingly allow on this site or in the podcast.

Along with his description of the Labs’ work on a new product and the no doubt grue infested, labyrinthine corridors of ThinkGeek HQ, Honan includes the sometimes rocky early history of the geek-trepreneurs. It only deepens the marvel that the company has remained true after over a decade of hawking its humorous and often useful wares.

VA Linux had big plans for its little subsidiary. “All of a sudden we had people telling us how to run the business,” Vadnais says. If ThinkGeek was selling novelty accessories, why not sell keyboards and monitors as well? “It was worse than that,” Vadnais says. “They wanted us to sell VHS players.”

Got it…need it…got it…want it…Oh, sorry, was looking at the drool inspiring inset in the article listing out many of the custom items ThinkGeek has come up with over the years. If you adore the site as much as I do, check out Honan’s article. Unless you wanted to hang onto your allowance for a little longer.

Inside ThinkGeek, Where Mythical Meat Can Make Millions, Wired

feeds | grep links > Humorous Programming History, Better Nanodots, and Graphene for Chip Cooling

  • Brief, incomplete and mostly wrong history of programming languages
    Via Cory at Boing Boing. You don’t have to be a programmer to get all the humor here but it sure helps. It helps a lot, much of the humor is likely to be missed by the laiety. No, actually, I doubt they’ll miss it very much. More for us.
  • New technique for fabricating nanodot memory
    The use of ferrous nano materials for storage isn’t particularly new. What the MIT Technology Review points out is an improvement in how the particles are aligned and arranged, demonstrated by researchers at NCSU. The challenge up to this point is that the physical and magnetic alignment were difficult to ensure were both correct. Several other challenges remain before tackling practical applications.
  • New form of graphene promises improved chip cooling
    The Register explains how a form of the carbon molecule that more closely approaches the ideal, infinitely large, one molecule thick material could eventually lead to improved cooling. Bill Daly’s recent rallying cry for better parallelism in computing was at least partially prompted by the power and thermal load issues forming effective constraints on Moore’s law.

URL Sinisterizer

Cory shared this silly service on Boing Boing. As much as I enjoy the prospect of using this to comedic effect, I also had some serious thoughts about it. The URLs in question are way over the top, intended almost to be read aloud. Real malicious URLs, while recognizable to the power user, aren’t so obvious. I can’t help but thing that at least some of the better established tricks should be so obvious that this joke service would have considered using them. The fact that it doesn’t is I think an unfortunate reflection no how poorly trained the average user is to spot something hinky in a link.

Demystifying Luddism, Help Support Lovelace Biopic, and More

  • What’s inside a cup of coffee
    Just a brief listing up at Wired with a little bit of explanation for each component. I don’t describe myself as a coffee snob, per se, though all things being equal I prefer to drink good coffee rather than the usual drop swill on offer most places. I am also fascinated by those sort of scientific facts around the beverage as well as the lesser known elements of its history.
  • Skepticism of Mozilla’s response to Google Chrome Frame plugin
    At Ars, Ryan Paul not only recaps the comments by Baker and Shaver at Mozilla about Google’s plugin targeted at MSIE, he also deconstructs some of their concerns. I still tend to think getting users off at least the oldest versions of MSIE is a better long term goal but Ryan does offers some good food for thought on how Frame really is a fairly practical compromise building on a tradition of similar work by Mozilla and others.
  • Babbage, Lovelace documentary needs your support
    Cory points out what sounds like a wonderful film project that needs letters of support sent to the National Science Foundation. It sounds like the need is greatest for letters from people with stories of how Lovelace work directly influenced theirs, in particular women in computing related fields, and from folks with a network or organization that can help promote the film.
  • Monty Python turns 40 today
    What more can I say, really? The comedy troupe is a fixture of so many overlapping subcultures, including geeks of many strips and hackers.
  • Debunking modern ideas about Luddism
    Matthew Lasar has a great piece at Ars digging into a historical movement often invoked as a bane of technological advancement. The lessons are still relevant, once you understand what the Luddites were really doing at the time, but has more to do with the risks of unrestrained capitalism, aided and abetted by disruptive technology.
  • FTC approves rules for payment, freebies received by bloggers
    The Globe and Mail was the first place I saw this story, though details are scant. Is this only for bloggers that are paid employees or blogs that are incorporated in some way? I doubt it but I expect many other sites to pick this story up and add analysis and commentary soon.

Marking Time by Experience

Part of my contemplation of the history of hacking and computing is motivated by my own personal experience of it. I reminisced on this when talking about the things my dad passed down to me about computing and hacking in the intro of the last podcast.

Mur Lafferty, a good friend and yet another podcaster1, posted her inaugural article for her column at Suicide Girls. WARNING: If you go cruise around the site, beyond just the article link, Suicide Girls contains material of an adult nature. Mur’s article is totally safe for work and her boss at SG says the ads and other content should also be safe for work, if a bit racy.

She isn’t speaking to computing or hacking but she describes a very clear way of marking time in our lives by the experiences we have. In her case, her geeky recollections of playing the various incarnations of Nintento’s Mario Kart franchise. That’s the common element, to me, the experience. Through her narrative, you get a vivid sense of what these experiences meant to her, both embedded in her life and the broader sense of her life at that time.

When I think about the time I spent dialing into BBSes, first learning BASIC, hacking around with Pascal during Summer session at college, and even more recent milestones, it as much about the whole sense of my life at those times as about the particular activity. Without verbally jumping up and down on them like I just have, she deftly puts her finger on these threads of experience.

I look forward to her future essays for SG and expect them to be equally geeky, perhaps even things to which I can draw parallels in my hackerly experience, too.

[1] More a commentary on the fact that almost all of my personal friends these days are podcasters, not any commentary on any specific one, such as Mur in this case.