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Sock Sorter

W. Daniel Hillis, known to almost everyone as Danny, may be the most famous person your next-door neighbor has never heard of. If you meet him, you will find him the kindest man to deserve the descriptor genius, and probably the smartest person who didn’t make you feel dumb.

Until, that is, you try to explain what he does.

Here’s one way of getting at it: Hillis invents things. Big things, like a “parallel” computer with 64,000 processors (your “serial” computer has only one), and a mechanical clock that marks time in millennial increments — the emblem of the Long Now Foundation he created with Stewart Brand.

Hillis has a Ph.D. from MIT and has counted among his friends the late, great physicist Richard Feynman and the mathematician Claude Shannon, the man who married algebra to telephone circuits in a way that made computers possible. He’s also designed toys for Milton Bradley, worked as an Imagineer at Disney and founded several companies, including one called Thinking Machines.

These days he’s based at the Glendale office of the company he founded with a colleague from Disney, Bran Ferren, where he marshals the collective imaginations of his staff to solve other companies’ problems. Most recently, Hillis and Ferren applied their minds to the problem of privacy when you’re talking on the phone in an office full of cubicles — with Sonare Technologies, they came up with Babble, a $400 device that swallows your words and rebroadcasts them as meaningless harmonies, ambient noise that’s both tolerable and unintelligible to your co-workers.

On top of it all, Hillis writes books, and if you ever wake up in the middle of the night convinced you have to figure out how to explain computation to your children, you could not do better than to pick up the book Hillis wrote in 1998, The Pattern on Stone, in which he explains what an algorithm is by comparing it to sorting socks. When I read the book eight years ago, I was so delighted that I got his phone number through the publisher and called him up for an interview. He said no, of course. But he did it so politely that I have never stopped asking.