Monday, 30 January 2012

Opening restaurants for breakfast

For many restaurants, the fixed assets (building, interior, kitchen equipment, etc) and the rent thereon make up a significant proportion of the cost base. Given that these costs are fixed, it would make sense to maximise the benefit from them, so why don't many restaurants open for breakfast?

Breakfast could be run by a separate shift of staff, and all that is necessary is for those staff to cover their staff costs, plus ingredients, plus energy, and anything more is profit on the existing setup. Synergies could be achieved if a good breakfast inspires customers to return for lunch or dinner. (Obviously the breakfast shift would need to leave the restaurant in a suitable condition for the lunch shift!)

There is no reason why breakfast needs to be that close to the normal restaurant in terms of genre of food, but obviously a complete clash could be detrimental.

To take this thought further, why not run the kitchen 24h, with the time while the restaurant is not open used to prepare foods to be boughts in an associated shop, e.g. fresh bread. Or alternatively, the kitchen used as the base for a takeout service.

Business combinations: driving school; vehicle hire; taxi firm; delivery service

  • fleet of vehicles
  • staff of drivers (and driving instructors)
  • vehicle scheduling and communication staff and systems
  • yard for storing vehicles
  • contract for vehicle maintenance
  • taxis/driving instructors do deliveries when they have downtime (as driving instructors would demand a premium as they are better qualified, they would only be used to handle peak demand, which would be more efficient than having overcapacity of delivery drivers and vehicles)
  • run vehicles 24x7, e.g. a car that is used for driving school during the day is used for a taxi service at night (vehicle choice is important as taxis tend to be larger than driving school vehicles, with the former selected for legroom and luggage capacity and the latter selected for parkability and fuel economy)
  • bulk vehicle servicing contract, or own a mechanics shop for cheaper maintenance costs
  • schedule deliveries with the pickup and drop-off locations of driving instructors and taxis

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Soap-in-a-bag (commercial responses to consumers' thrifty ideas)

Consumers come up with no end of clever ways to make the most of products that companies sell them, and the extent of this is set to increase with the rise of the maker subculture and associated trends.

One of those ideas that appealled to me was the use of old pantyhose to use up old soap. There's an article on Lifehacker, and many more if you do a search.

What's interesting about this idea, is that the consumers' modification is actually a significant improvement, not only does the method use up the old pieces of soap, but generates a better lather (due to a higher surface area to volume ratio) and has a built-in loofah.

So why haven't the soap companies cottoned on to this? At worst, it's a gimmick that could increase sales. At best, it's a differentiator: more lather; better for the environment (as no wasted ends) (demonstrating the companies' environmental credentials); works with cheap soap; less likely to slip out of your hands; does not slip off or fall through soap holder; exfoliates (the loofah element); and due to the better lathering, it uses the soap faster (which means more sales).

Another possibility would be to sell small soap beads specifically for a bag. The beads could be of different colour and odor, allowing to the customer to mix-and-match to get the smell they wanted.

The lesson of this? Companies need to pay attention not just to who's buying their products, how much they're buying, when they're buying, etc. But also, how the customers/consumers are using their products.

An online tool for image quizzes

I think there is an opportunity for an online tool/website for image quizzes that allows users to create their own image quizzes using images that can upload or find on the internet (subject to copyright considerations), and have these hosted on the site. There would also be a login, so learners could track their progress.

There would be two key types of quiz: ones in which the learner can be asked to click on an area of the image that corresponds to a particular definition (e.g. click on the USA on a map of the world; click on Arizona on a map of the USA); and ones in which the learner can be shown an image with a label, and can select from mulitple choice the correct answer for that label (e.g. the label points at the hard disk on an image of the inside of a computer, and the learner can pick from "hard disk", "CPU", "RAM", "PSU", etc).

Additionally, instead of just one image with components, sets of images could be used (e.g. Presidents of the USA).

The flexibility in allowing users to upload images an create their own quizzes would make this a valuable tool for educators everywhere. There are also a couple of spin-offs: having images with machine-readable labels (which would be created as part of the quizzes) would in itself be a valuable tool as this data could be searched; similarly, the data input by users could be used to teach computers image recognition, and improve image search engines.

Another possible way of using this concept would be to use image interpretation as an alternative to recaptcha. Like recaptcha, two images are presented, one that the computer knows the correct interpretation of, the other which it doesn't. The captcha bit works on the image the computer knows, and the other image and associated response, is used to teach computers image recognition.

Other thoughts/features:
  • Public/private quizzes
  • Link to social media sites (with scores)
  • Embed in your own webpage
  • Produce stand-alone files to be emailed or used offline
  • ‘Email quiz to a friend’ emails link or file
  • False answers
  • Categorisation – tags
  • Edit/Modify/Extend other people’s imagequizzes

Quizzes as a learning method

Quizzes (tests, exams, etc) are an effective learning method as they are more participative, and force the learner to use what they are learning, rather than just absorbing it. If a quiz keeps firing questions at you (non-stop), you tend to think "just one more question" like the computer games' "just one more level", which encourages more learning activity. And the message is reinforced by the repetition (like drilling in the military).

The optimum quizzing environment is one where a teacher can supervise the learner and explain where they are going wrong. It is difficult to get a computer to recreate this, as computers do not understand the subject. There is a significant challenge in getting computers to conjugate and mark quiz questions.

Computer quizzing is effective for mulitple choice, which is particularly good at teaching the lexicon of a subject area; touchtyping is taught well by computer programs (as long as the user does not cheat with what finger they are using on what keys).

Maths problems can work, but if the learner get's the wrong answer, it's would be difficult for the computer to give the learner marks for their workings. One possible solution to this, would be to force the learner to build their workings using a set of tools in the program. This way the computer could analyse at which step in the solution the learner went wrong.

For teaching musical instruments, a computer could ask for a note at random, and measure pitch of the response to ensure the correct note was played. The quicker the user plays the correct note, the better the score. For learning a stringed instrument, the computer to set both the string, hand position and finger to be used (the computer would be able to determine the string used via the timbre of the sound).

Images are an effective learning tool that can be used in a couple of ways: the learner can be asked to click on an area of the image that corresponds to a particular definition (e.g. click on the USA on a map of the world; click on Arizona on a map of the USA). The learner can be shown an image with a label, and can select from mulitple choice the correct answer for that label (e.g. the label points at the hard disk on an image of the inside of a computer, and the learner can pick from "hard disk", "CPU", "RAM", "PSU", etc).

Are all possible quiz types built and out there? Or is there still opportunity?

Automatically adjusting bed

One of the problems of crafted beds and pillows is that they only work if the sleeper sleeps in the same position. A possible solution to this would be beds that automatically adjusted themselves to move the sleeper into an optimal position (e.g. for spine alignment). The sleeper's position would be detected from pressure sensors, and perhaps 3D scanners (e.g. Kinect). Under the mattress (which would need to be a flexible foam mattress) would be a bed of hydraulic cylinders (or equivalent) that could raise an lower a particular area of the bed (a greater number of smaller cylinders gives finer control over the areas of the bed that can be raised and lowered). Obviously, the cylinders would need to move slowly and quietly so as not to wake the sleeper.

Micro learning soundbites

There are some activities that fully occupy visual capabilities, but are not particularly mentally taxing. These include walking, driving and manual labour. To harness the time spent doing these activities as an opportunity for learning requires learning material optimised purely for audio. Often recordings of lectures will not fulfil this need, as they rely on visual material (e.g. slide shows, drawing on blackboard, etc).

Additionally, the audio needs to be optimised to suit the available time, e.g. 1 minute, 5 minutes, 20 minutes, etc, self-contained micro-learning soundbites.

Equality of suffering

From each according to their means, to each according to their needs.

Each at the optimum level of suffering to maximise output and ensure the continued survival of the species. Except during times of crisis when above optimum would be expected in order to achieve shortterm goals (i.e. aversion of crisis).

Doesn't sound much fun though.

Segregation of work and personal life, work and personal systems

The to do list is a perfect example of the challenge of segregating work and personal life, and work and personal systems. Sometimes it's necessary to have personal items on your work to do list, for example to remind you to pop to the bank in your lunch break (why don't banks do convenient opening hours!). Likewise, it is fairly common to have work items on your personal to do list (for example if you've brought work home to do on the weekend).

Ideally, you want one list that covers both. And you want it tightly integrated with your email (both personal and work), calendar (both personal and work), social media, etc. But that means your work information begins leaking into the personal area, which presents data protection and commercial confidentiality issues.

A concrete example: say you are a manager who has an employee who is underperforming and subject to performance review. That performance review is going to appear as a to do item, and if that to do list appears in your personal sphere, that puts confidentiality at risk.

How can we bring everything together, but keep it apart?

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Public domain output

Is public domain output becoming a more important part of recruitment? i.e. potential employees being able to point to something in the public domain that they achieved / worked on / contributed to.

The applicability of wildlife corridors as a model for the success of retail locations

Wildlife corridors are small areas of habitat that act as connectors between two (or more) large areas of habitat that enable the wildlife of the larger areas to mix. The underlying observation is that wildlife will often not venture into non-habitat areas, but will migrate along potentially narrow habitat areas.

I suspect this concept can be applied to shopping locations. Shoppers are like the wildlife in that they will not stray too far beyond retail areas looking for more shops, but will continue window shopping shop-to-shop.

The implication of this is that two shopping areas will not benefit from the wandering shoppers from each other unless there is a connection between them of shops (or that the shoppers are conscious of both locations); only a shop with a strong following (i.e. people conscious of it, and deciding to consciously visit it) can survive a poor location (i.e. not connected by a retail corridor), as it will not be stumbled upon by shoppers wandering outside their shopping habitat.

More on nihilism

Nihilism is right, but not particularly useful.

 (similarly, there is no absolute morale right and wrong, but is doesn't stop them being useful concepts; there is no such thing as laziness (just different motivations), but the concept can be a helpful shorthand)

Peer reviewed journal for school children

School children should be doing experiments and research that add to the wealth of human knowledge, not just repeating experiments of bygone scientists. They should be experiencing the full scientific process (albeit a lightweight version), including peer review and publication.

This would involve students doing the research, students doing the peer review, students doing the editing, and students doing the publication (online of course - after all paper is dead).

There is also a need to capture areas of research that students can usefully do within their resources (time, skill, lab equipment, knowledge), perhaps an online repository to capture ideas.

Kettle level guage

A kettle's fill-level is often shown by a transparent layer directly showing the water, often supplemented by a float to make it easier to see. The problem with this approach is that the fill level indicator is affected by limescale deposition, reducing aesthetical value. A possible solution to this would be to have the fill-level indicator in a separate compartment (with no water in). The indicating object would be magnet, and held in place by a magnetic float on the water side. This would work similarly to a magnetic window cleaner.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Using neutrinos to communicate through solid matter?

Would it be possible to communicate through the Earth using neutrinos? Neutrinos are able to pass through other matter as they are weakly interacting. The also travel at the speed of light (or faster according to some...).

Why would communicating through the Earth be beneficial? Such a communication medium would benefit from lower latency due to a lower distance travelled. This could be beneficial to algo-trading, particularly where it is reliant on information from the other side of the world (e.g. a different stock market).

Strobe alarm clock

Strobe lighting (or in fact any flashing or moving light) is good at keeping us awake (which is why TVs, with their flashing moving lights, are not good for the body clock). It should be possible to harness this effect to make an alarm clock that quickly wakes us up. It may not need to be a bright flashing light (which could be abrasive) in order to achieve the effect; a subtle flashing light may work to slowing bring people to a pleasant state of wakefulness.

Contrasting self-directed learning with being taught

One of the key advantages of being taught is that the teacher holds back the overwhelming weight of information, allowing through a only trickle that the student can usefully digest.

A problem with students learning how to learn in a taught environment, is that the learning methods that they learn are oriented towards being taught, and hence they are ill-prepared for self-directed learning, with its inevitable interaction with overwhelming volume.

The problem of volume can also be thought of a question hydra (of greek myth and legend). As a hydra sprouts two new heads for each cut off, a question sprouts two (or often more) question with every answer. Teachers act like Iolaus and his torch, closing down these questions with statements like "that's a good question, but we'll cover that next week" or "that's a good question, but you don't really need to understand that in order to understand this, so let's not get distracted".

Another way of thinking about this problem is dependencies. Teachers help us start in a place with the fewest dependencies, and to build these up in a logical order.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Universal stuff carrier

Sometimes bags aren't big enough for a particular item you need to carry, not necessarily in terms of the volume of the bag, but in terms of one (or perhaps two) dimensions. What would be useful in such a circumstance would be a "bag" that despenses with the holding mechanism, relying purely on a strap to hold the object. No doubt such things have been used in the past and currently exist, but they do not seem to be sold in retail stores, despite their usefulness. Illustrations below.

A website for hosting Inducement Prize Contests

I propose a website to allow any organisation or individual to easily create and host Inducement Prize Contests. The website would follow similar lines are Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, but in reverse: rather than requesting funding, the individual would be offering it in the form of a contest.

There would be no de minimus limit, so any prize or prize-set could be offered. The ICP creator would need to stump up the cash up-front (which would then be help in trust by the website organistation, with interest accruing to the prize). A variety of rule types would need to be managed, e.g. fixed time limit vs open time limit, best entry wins vs winning only with a defined set of criteria.

If successful, the website in itself would provide significant free marketing to the contest, increasing the number of participants. It would also reduce barriers to entry, resulting in more contests in total.

Using Inducement Prize Contests to get disparate groups to work together

Inducement Prize Contests have a long history, and significant recent interest, largely driven by the X Prize and the DARPA Grand Challenge. The focus of most Inducement Prize Contests that I have read about is in pushing a particular area of technology beyond its current limits. It seems to me that another interesting way in which they could be used would be in pushing two disparate fields to work together.

Say for example subject matter Y people tend not to engage with subject matter Z people, but you hypothesise that subject matter Y's technology could solve subject matter Z's problems, then you pose an Inducement Prize Contest that will be won by the best use of subject matter Y's technology to solbe subject matter Z's problems. Obviously in order to win, subject matter Y people will need to engage with subject matter Z people in order to understand their problems, thus forcing the two groups together, which is likely to generate benefits that outlive the competition.

Qualification-only institutions

The internet and world wide web have made available significant amounts of academic material (in written, pictoral, audio and video formats) at no cost; forums, mailing lists and answer websites provide support, again at no cost; and dedicated educational websites provide the means to test your own knowledge via quizzes (often combined with the former two elements required for education).

The last piece of the above puzzle that is missing is an institution, with reputation, that will open up its assessment mechanisms and allow anyone to gain a qualification. It may be necessary for such an institution to charge in order to recover the administration and assessment costs (e.g. markers). But such a charge would typically be a small fraction of the current cost of education.

Such a shift could be revolutionary, as more people would be able to access qualifications that are currently the reserve of the rich, or those willing to brave significant debt. In widening the pool of candidates, the institutions could afford to make the assessment more taxing.