One of the hottest microcontrollers now is the Arduino. It was originally developed in Italy. You can get them at major electronic outlets such as Radio Shack, Fry's (known as Osepp), and many other places. Great for controlling all sorts of things or just even for learning electronics.
I had some instructions for installing the software for the Arduino, but when I finally tried to upload compiled code, there was no communication. Arduino defaults to com1 and if you are using Ubuntu, the usb port if should be ttyUSB0 instead. There are a few other gotchas, but I have it working and it is neat. The software comes with a lot of examples including one for a simple blinking light that does not require any extra parts to get working to start off.
If you plan to really use the Arduino, I really recommend getting the "Arduino cookbook". I think a lot of the robotics books are now spending time talking about the Arduino. Great gift for an aspiring techie.