The Smart And The Useless

New York Jets quarterback Brad Smith, right, runs for a touchdown past Cincinnati Bengals defenders Chinedum Ndukwe, left, Rashad Jeanty, on ground, and Frostee Rucker during the second quarter at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010. Smith had 92 yards rushing as the Jets clinched their first playoff berth in three seasons with a 37-0 victory over the Bengals at the frigid Meadowlands.
AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Every couple of months I have the joy of getting together with my brother and a few friends for the most competitive of pursuits, "The Gadgetoff." You only get an invitation if you can bring something (or better, many things) extremely cool to the party. He or she with the coolest and wildest technology wins.

This year, we had Helen Greiner, formerly of MIT Robotics Lab and now President of iRobot, bring a fleet of her vacuum-cleaning Roombas. She also schlepped in the go-anywhere military-strength Packbot, outfitted with many sensors and capable of scaling steep steps with breathtaking speed. Brilliant 'gizmologist' Greg Harper presented more than a dozen innovative camera phones, various lasers, and, among other things, a miniature radio controlled tank from China. (This, naturally, shot serious projectiles at Helen's robots, to no great effect.) Our friend Joe Pompei, from Holosonic, brought his amazing "Audio Spotlight" directional loudspeaker (that uses high frequency sounds to "project" audio to a discrete area a hundred feet away.) Game designer and computer artist Zack Simpson displayed his astounding "Shadow Garden" piece, an artwork in which the viewer's shadow interacts with images projected on the wall. The list of inventors and their gadgets goes on and on at these spontaneous and joyous events.

To win you must amaze and since most of the things were amazing, most of us "won." My favorite cool thing (and what I brought to the party) was the Versalaser, made by Universal Laser Systems. This desktop printer is connected to a computer. Instead of just printing on paper, however, this 20-watt laser device "prints" on marble, plastic, wood, cardboard, and frankly, almost anything else you can put in it. After burning fabulous pictures of people's faces on onyx and plastic, and cutting neat holes in 2-inch thick wooden boards, I decided such technology might have other interesting applications.

Friends at MIT admitted they once used a similar device to carve Martha Stewart's face onto an eggplant. Apparently, she was not impressed. After experimenting with eggplants, I was not impressed either. Eggplants are uneven and not the most delightful of artistic mediums. Instead, with trial and error, I discovered that cheese burns really well with the laser. (Unfortunately, the room kind of smells like fondue and, despite the self-contained HEPA filter in the laser device, co-workers may call the fire department.) Coincident with our cheese discovery, we found that crackers also make a fine burning medium. So, we were using this marvelous machine that usually makes wonderful signs and placards and trophies to also make excellent customized hors d'oeuvres. Imagine, inviting people to dinner and having each person's plate customized with their head literally carved in cheese! Ah, technology.

So, as this evening was a complete success, I decided to share my technological discovery of new ways to nosh at the world's largest and most powerful geek-in, TED, the conference for Technology, Entertainment and Design, held every year in Monterey. This year, the theme was "The Pursuit of Happiness." Several hundred of the nation's smartest and most influential people came together to hear brilliant psychologists, eminent scientists, hysterical comedians, and many others hold forth on what makes joy.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman talked beautifully about the science behind finding optimal experience. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, founders of Google, described how they engineer creative time for themselves and their colleagues within their extraordinary business. Cosmologist Andrew Lange described breakthroughs and discoveries about the formation of the Universe as other brilliant cosmologists Paul Steinhardt and Alan Guth looked on. Futurist Juan Enriquez described how life science is majestically evolving. (By the way, my favorite presentation was from "web maverick" Ze Frank, but more about him later.)

So, in this heady atmosphere, it was no wonder why TED curator Chris Anderson went out of his way to keep me off the formal list of acknowledged speakers. But nothing can keep elegantly carved laser-engraved Monterey Jack cheese in its place. Before this assembly of prize winning physicists and biologists, computer moguls, and corporate executives, I finally was allowed to reveal the equation underlying Dubno's First Law of Happiness. For those of you without a Nobel Prize, this equation, J= T x U, obviously is translated: "Joy Equals Technology Times Uselessness." Happiness can be found while playing with something wonderful without having to do something necessary with it. (By the way, John Brockman's brilliant recent collection new laws, "What's My Law", omits mine, and therefore is a must read.)

So I showed my laser cooked food and defied gravity with the amazing Levitron (see our Toy Story story). I aimed Raytheon's best infrared scope at this bleeding edge audience to show who truly was hot and who was not. Then I demonstrated the solitary good use for Bluetooth technology (to control a tiny little Sony Ericsson car) and used the astounding Proscope microscope to find the dust mites living on my eyebrows.

To be fair, Versalaser is brilliant and useful. Now, for less than $10,000 people can purchase a machine that can fabricate complex parts in their shop based on illustrations they make in Corel Draw or on other computer programs. Several years ago, $10,000 was precisely what a fax machine cost. In the next few years, as these home fabricating machines come down further in cost and continue to be simpler to use, computer-driven machines are likely to become commonplace in most home workshops. If you can print it, you can create it in living 3-D. Instead of struggling with a Dremel to carve out pieces for a dollhouse, you will bring down a computer file and "print" your drawing onto piece of oak. Elegant fabrications will be as easy to make as sending a fax.

But, for me, I prefer the idea of cooking with chemistry … fondueing with physics. As a note of caution, Sergey Brin, of Google, tells us he thinks eating anything cooked with a 20-Watt laser is not too bright. I maintain these lasered cookies and cheeses taste just fine. And whose advice should you take? That of a fellow who dreamed up the best-loved and best-used search engines in the universe or, um, mine?
By Daniel Dubno By Daniel Dubno