Einstein’s Advice

February 27th, 2003

“Concern for man himself and his fate must form the chief interest for all technical endeavors. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

– Albert Einstein

Wi-Fi Internet Telephone

February 23rd, 2003

I want a small, cheap mobile device that:

  • notifies me when I’m within range of an open Wi-Fi (wireless Internet) signal, and:
  • allows me to call any telephone number on the planet free of charge, or nearly free of charge, whenever I’m within range of a Wi-Fi signal, via a simple numeric-keypad interface.

    (Services like PhoneFree and Net2Phone already let you make very cheap calls to worldwide telephone numbers, over the Internet using a personal computer. Now that Wi-Fi signals are becoming so widespread, a small, cheap device dedicated to this application would be extremely handy.)

  • Location-Aware Thumb Ratings

    February 20th, 2003

    People have predicted very complex “augmented-reality” systems that might arise in the near future, when many folks will carry around location-aware devices. But how about a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating system?

    Here’s how it might work: your device includes a green thumbs-up button and a red thumbs-down button, TiVo-remote style. As you move through the city, when you enter a favorite restaurant or club or cafe you click the “thumbs up” button. When you pass that restaurant where you got food poisoning or that stuffy overpriced bar, you click “thumbs down.” And if you enter an especially wonderful place, you click “thumbs up” twice to give it two thumbs up.

    The key: you don’t have to interrupt your daily activities; just reach into your pocket and click one of two buttons whenever you think of it.


    Each time you press the button, the device records your geographical location and the thumb rating. Soon you have a little database, a map that shows the spots around town that you love and the spots that you hate.

    So what? So nothing, until people share their preference maps. Now you have a powerful concept.

    Thanks to this network, you can share your preference map with anyone who wants to use it, and you can freely use other peoples’ preference maps. You decide which of your friends have tastes closest to your own, and you subscribe to those friends’ preference maps.

    Software on your device notifies you when you’re near a spot that friends have rated positively; if a dozen of your friends rated a place highly, the device specifies via sounds or spoken words that the spot got a lot of thumbs up from the people you trust. And another thing — software maps this for you, visually overlaying the green and red thumb-clicks over a map of a city or a region or a building.


    You can also form preference groups, just as you form e-mail discussion lists. Everyone who shares an interest adds their account to a particular list, and that list compiles all members’ preference maps into a master map for that group. Then anyone in the group can subscribe to the group map and use it or turn it off as desired. (Of course, if you no longer trust a person or a group’s tastes, you can filter out their thumb-clicks on your map by removing that person or group from your list).

    For certain events you use time-sensitive preference maps with thumb-clicks that fade over time. This could be great at an art fair or an outdoor festival — you form a preference group with a bunch of friends who will attend the same event, and as you all explore the place, you each tag the coolest things and the most worthless things that you see. You might glance at a map and notice a dozen bright green blips at bandstand 3, which suggests that something amazing is going down there right now. Those green blips by the coat-check, on the other hand, have faded, so you probably missed whatever happened there. So you head straight to the action at bandstand 3.


    (I’m reading the book “The Orchid Thief,” and I just finished a scene that takes place at an orchid convention. Word spreads through the convention center that “you’ve got to check out the orchid that smells just like grape Kool-Aid.” Frustrated flower freaks are milling around, blindly trying to find that particular orchid among hundreds of flowers on display. The orchid freaks would immediately know just where to find the most talked-about flowers in the show if they used such a preference system. That’s what sparked this idea.)

    Why Nerds Are Unpopular

    February 19th, 2003

    Had I read the following essay in middle school, my teen years would have been much less of an ordeal. If you know a kid or a teacher or a parent, send them this: Why Nerds Are Unpopular by Paul Graham. Thanks to Dav for the tip.

    Sushi Freakshow

    February 14th, 2003

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    Last night I went with housemate Dav to my new favorite restaurant: a crazy, cozy, wonderful sushi joint called Country Station. It was a bizarre meal, indeed.

    A strange drunk woman told Dav she was entranced by his “look.” She immediately began photographing Dav, and she continued to snap shots and compliment him for about an hour, until we paid our bill and headed out. Then she stumbled along after Dav, babbling and snapping photos on the street.

    Later we headed to a bar a few blocks away, and guess who was there? His new groupie lurched over and happily began a new photo session. Then I started photographing her photographing him.

    Things became interesting as the other bar patrons tried to figure out who this celebrity was. A smarmy yuppie sidled up next to me and said, “Yo bruh. Who’s your friend? Oh come on bruh, tell me his name.”

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    So I said, “Come on now, leave him alone. He never goes out anymore because people harass him like this wherever he goes. Do you know what I had to go through to drag him out tonight? I promised not to answer any questions about him; if you want his name you’ll have to ask him.”

    “Fine. My girlfriend will know anyway,” he said. “She knows who all the celebrities are.”

    Five minutes later, just as Groupie Number One wrapped up her final photo shoot, the girlfriend showed up and began interrogating Dav.

    “I know you’re someone famous, who are you? Are you David Navarro? Seriously, you are David Navarro aren’t you?”

    (Incidentally, who the hell is David Navarro?)

    [UPDATE: She was thinking of Dave Navarro, guitarist for Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Thanks commenter Adam for pointing that out.]

    Dav — who emphasizes now that he did not adore the attention — had to escape eventually, so I hailed a cab and we headed to one of those oddball San Francisco parties where a naked woman lies on a table, and chefs carefully cover her body with freshly prepared sushi for the guests.

    Yes indeed. Last night, sushi was the magic word.

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    Snapshots from Glen Canyon

    February 8th, 2003

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    Feynman’s Science Poetry

    February 1st, 2003

    Here are beautiful, inspiring, big-picture thoughts about the value of science, from the father of nanotechnology, Nobel laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman:
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