Geek in the Galley: How we get from here to there on Urbanspoon

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I am a luddite.

And I don't mean that lightly.  I am not some cutesy dipwad who gets flustered trying to work the copy machine.  I don't eschew the use of computers out of some misplaced paranoia over the loss of my IBM Selectric.  I am not your grandma who can't figure out how to use the remote control.

No, I am an old-school luddite of the traditional definition -- a direct descendant of those British weavers who assaulted the machinery of the industrial revolution, of the guys who used to throw wrenches in the factory works. It's not that I fear technology.  It's not that I don't understand it. It is that I actively loathe certain dehumanizing, time-sucking and invasive technologies in some highly specific and destructive ways.

For example, I once kicked a Playstation to death because it wouldn't do what I told it to do: namely, work.  I have purposefully sabotaged computers (usually with a rock) over my early and misguided love of the fax machine. I have knifed POS systems in restaurants because I preferred having waitresses deliver tickets to me in person rather than being told what to do by an infernally clacking machine.

My cell phone?  Ancient. It does absolutely nothing but take and receive phone calls.  No camera. No games.  No music.  No hands-free wireless whatever. When I use it on the road, while driving, I am willfully and deliberately endangering all those around me, and I use the thing while driving a lot.

It is not hypocritical of me to have a cell phone at all. Cell-phone technology is awesome. It allows (read: forces) me to be at work, on the job, twenty-four hours a day.  The thing is never far from my hand.  And for the longest time, all I wanted it to do was what it was designed to do -- to let me talk on the phone without being tied to a wall jack -- and this was something that it accomplished admirably. I was happy.  I was content. Then came Urbanspoon.

The upstart food-and-restaurant site, which can be found at http://www.urbanspoon.com/, kicks the crap out of the citysearches and yelps of the world, and a couple of its cool features are making me seriously rethink my bloody loyalty to those nineteenth-century revolutionaries.

Cool thing #1: the urbanspoon iPhone app.  Have you seen the commercial for this thing?  Have you seen it demonstrated in person by some hyperventilating early-adopter in your office sporting a little gadget-chubby in his Dockers and one of those repetitive-motion-injury wrist braces from playing with his phone too much?  For those of you who haven't, let me try to explain the simple genius of it.

 Imagine a slot machine -- three reels, completely randomized.  Now imagine a slot machine that, rather than being loaded with bells and cherries and jackpot symbols, instead comes with the price, neighborhood and name of every restaurant in your city.  You load the app up on your iPhone, give it a shake (yeah, the phone comes with an accelerometer built in that allows for all sorts of chronic masturbation jokes), and the wheels spin, giving you a random neighborhood in your city, a random price point and then a restaurant that is both in that neighborhood and at that price point. 

Say you're in Denver. Shake the phone and it comes up with Charlie Brown's in the Cap Hill neighborhood with a one-dollar-sign rating for dirt-fucking cheap (under ten bucks).  Don't like Charlie Brown's?  Shake it again and it comes back with Z Cuisine in Highland at a fairly pricey three dollar signs.  You can do this all friggin' day.

While this may not sound like much, the function is one of the best things I've played with in a long time -- serving to both remind me of restaurants that I love but haven't been to enough (Patsy's, La Fiesta) and to introduce me to joints that have somehow managed to slip beneath my radar even after six years of reviewing (the Papa-Chuy Taco Shop seems worth a visit just for the name alone).  And once you've found a restaurant you like?  It's easy as anything to navigate your way straight to the urbanspoon page for that restaurant to check out menus, directions, get a phone number or even a link to a review by yours truly. 

Frankly, I found the function so engaging, I kinda want to dump my old, trustworthy, reliable Nokia-with-nothin' and jump a massive technological divide to pick up an iPhone myself.

I haven't done it yet, mind you.  But I am sorely tempted.  And all because of urbanspoon

Cool thing #2: Denver restaurants at night. This is a simple mapping app available right on the urbanspoon website where every restaurant in the Denver area is turned into a single point of light and projected over a black background as though every other light in the city of Denver was turned off, allowing just the restaurants to shine out on a satellite image.  The app itself is nothing special -- other than the fact that according to urbanspoon, there are exactly 7021 restaurants in the area and how, generally, they are dispersed (fair warning: some of the listings info on the site is out of date -- but what's really cool is using it to compare Denver to other cities in the urbanspoon database.

For example, San Francisco?  Burns like a fucking horseshoe-shaped supernova compared to Denver, with 18,676 restaurants in the Bay Area.  And New York is just insane, with as many restaurants just in Gramercy, Chelsea and the Village as there are in all of the Denver neighborhoods combined.  New York's total comes in at a mind-boggling 24,881.  And my hometown of little ol' Rochester, New York?  All told, just 2027. In its picture, it looks like an emaciated octopus drawn on a child's Lite-Brite.

So kudos to you, urbanspoon, and all your techno-foodie-geekery.  I consider myself to be one of the hardest men in the world to impress when it comes to these sorts of one-off technologies and interweb doo-dads, but you managed it not once, but twice.  Also cool of you to link so heavily to working critics and food writers in the towns you invade -- a bit of benevolent overlordship that I, for one, appreciate.

Now if I can just figure out how to steal these apps and put them on the Cafe Society blog...-- Jason Sheehan

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