July 15, 2024

In Search of Cool Stuff

In mid-August I’m going to a small technical workshop that has a “cool stuff” session, where everybody is invited to demonstrate or explain to the group something cool. It doesn’t have to be useful or technological; the only requirement is that a group of uber-geeks will think it is cool.

Perhaps you can help me out with suggestions….


  1. I’m gonna go out in a completely different direction for something cool. There’s a lot of trendy and mostly asinine mumbo-jumbo associated with the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism nowadays, but I remember reading one particular Talmudic story which I always thought was an elegant example of reconciliation and myth-making. In a way, it’s pretty cool, although there are no useful gadgets involved:

    As you probably know, the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch or Torah) are considered in some traditions to be the literal word of god, spoken word for word by god to the Israelites and written down by Moses. This literal interpretation has never sat well with Talmudic students because of the many seeming inconsistencies and contradictions in the Hebrew text. If it were really all god’s word, after all, you’d think it would be perfect.

    The story goes that one day in antiquity a group of students approached their Rabbi and asked how the entire Torah can be the literal word of god if there were so many mistakes. “Well you see,” said the Rabbi, “God started speaking the whole Torah from the mountain top, but his voice was so majestic that the Israelis couldn’t handle hearing it for long. Fearing that his people would die or go insane, Moses begged the Lord to stop speaking after a while. Maybe God had only finished reciting Genesis, the first book, and Moses wrote the other four. Since Moses was only human, some imperfections slipped in.”

    The students went to ponder this but returned in a few weeks and pointed out that even Genesis had many places that weren’t consistent with a directly divine authorship. When they challenged the Rabbi again, he conceded, “You might be right. Maybe God only recited the first chapter in Genesis before Moses had to beg him to stop.”

    The students poured over the first chapter and found numeric inconsistencies even there. The Rabbi agreed that maybe god had only uttered the first verse (“In the beginning…”), or maybe just the first word. Eventually, they decided that God had only spoken the first letter of the first word before Moses had to rescue his people from the booming divine voice.

    Even this didn’t sit right with the students. The first letter of the first word of the Hebrew Bible is Bet or B, but B is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet and has a numerical value of 2. Why would God start the most perfect document ever written with the second letter of the alphabet instead of the first? For the word to be truly perfect, the first letter had to be A.

    This was exactly what the Rabbi needed to hear. “But you see,” he replied, “the first letter of the Bible as God spoke it was actually Aleph or A. As you know, Aleph is the first letter of the alphabet, is always silent and represents the mystery of God. Since Aleph is silent, only the Lord can pronounce it. So when God starting speaking the Torah from the mountaintop, he miraculously voiced the sound of Aleph, which was enough to astonish and terrify the Israelites because such a sound is unimaginable and impossible. Moses immediately begged him to stop speaking.”

    So with this little bit of creative meta-data rationalization, the Rabbi was able to prove the divinity of the Bible, explain away numerous inconsistencies and describe a miracle of God that’s a bit more cerebral than all the locusts and first-born slayings which directly precede the description of this scene in Exodus.

    Anyway, that’s a random thing I remembered when you asked for something “cool”. Does it count?

  2. The new Magz toys and variants thereof…little steel balls and little plastic connectors with magnets at the ends. Great for teaching graph theory, too. I keep a small set at my desk for fidgeting with. Every geek/geeky kid I’ve shown/given them to has been totally taken with them.

  3. Fred wrote:

    >> You might take a look at the fun things the XM Radio enthusiasts have been up to at xmfan.com.

    Now THAT is KEWL!

    How about a Heathkit 2000 that “listens” to XM music, and “hums” to it as it cleans the house, Rhumba style? 🙂

    By “hum” I mean the robot could downsample the music, and post-process the downsampled output in some other ways, so it sounds like the robot is humming the songs.

  4. You might take a look at the fun things the XM Radio enthusiasts have been up to at xmfan.com. For $50, you can buy an XMPCR receiver for your computer. For $40 more, you can mod it to get an optical digital output (without circumventing any DRM). Meanwhile, the XMPCR receiver outputs metadata on USB about the songs being played on all XM stations and has a documented API for the USB. There is lots of software for this.

    Let’s see: for less than $100 in hardware and $10/mo, you can digitally record thousands of songs in every genre, along with playlists for later listening. And you could move the recordings to other devices. Now it would be a pain to manually chop up the recording into individual songs, but still…

  5. Maybe you have some pull, I got nowhere: both E-ink or Gyriconmedia have “electronic ink” materials. I tried to get enough info to build a “Whiteboard” out of the stuff – no luck. Probably because I don’t have “,Inc.” on my business card? Anyway – the concept is simple, allow a charge pen to “write” on the electronic ink surface, the backplane is just a thin foil into which you put whatever charge would change all the dots to white, when a button is pressed. No muss, no fuss, as they say.

    Anyone that wants to commercialize this- you can have this idea for free, I release it into the public domain.

  6. Reed-Solomon coding. It’s mathematically pretty (Gaussian elimination of matrices whose elements are drawn from GF(2**N)) and it’s everywhere.

  7. You might look at the state of software defined radio. The nice people at GNURadio have been working for a while and you might be able to pull off some demos.

  8. Remember Heathkits? I built lots of them–from resistor substitution boxes to color televisions. I think it’d be cool to have kits to do everything from an audio codec (make your own iPod) to wireless telephony (amateur radio license requried).