Monday, 27 August 2012

Automating pet food delivery

The great thing about pets (perhaps with the exception of a very few fussy ones) is that they're not worried about presentation and delivery of their food, only that they get it. As such there are opportunities to automate pet food delivery without detrimenting the pets experience, whilst saving human time/labour.

It would be fairly trivial to design an automated delivery tool from scratch with the ability to alter food packaging to suite the design. Such a solution would no doubt be beneficial to food manufacturers, as it would allow them to charge a premium on the food sold in the specialised packaging.

So more interesting for the consumer would be a solution that can take food in its current packaging, and deliver it in an automated fashion.

The majority of pets are dogs and cats, and food typically comes in a standard can. The steps an automated feeding device would need to be able to do are as follows:
  • Store a large number of cans, and allow these be used in turn (gravity feed)
  • Open the can
  • Take slices of the can and contents
  • Apply plunger to can slices
  • Eject empty can slices
  • Cover (and potentially refrigerate) can slices
Such a system would allow any subdivision of a can (half, thirds, quarter, etc), based on the dietary requirements of the particular pet. The food would be dispensed into a swappable bowl, allowing it to be cleaned by the user on a regular basis.

Hand belt sander for uneven surfaces

Standard hand belt sanders work well for taking an even amount of material from an even surface. But for taking an even amount of material from a slightly un-even surface, they don't: they even the surface first, which results in a loss of a gentle unevenness that adds character to the surface. This could be solved with a set of additional independently-moving spring-loaded rollers pushing the belt onto the surface. The greater the number of rollers, the more un-even the surface can be. The diagrams below illustrate:

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Research on the slippery slope

The slippery slope, the thin end of the wedge, the foot in the door, the camel's nose. This argument is used frequently in debate, including rigorous academic debate, despite arguably being an informal logical fallacy. If this argument is to continue to be used (and in all likelihood it will be) it would be useful to have a catalogue of examples to draw from, with mechanisms explained, in order that the use of such an argument can be justified.

Baby farming

I've always been intrigued by the baby farming of Brave New World and other fiction. It seems to me that specialisation and the corresponding efficiency have potential benefits to offer in this realm of human activity (it is one of the very few remaining human activities that hasn't fully succumbed to specialisation). But one lingering concerns I've had is whether a uniformity of service results in a uniformity of the new humans produced, which likely to seriously detriment the functioning of society.

One possibility would be for this activity to be undertaken by numerous private sector (and third sector) entities who would compete with each other to attract business and would adopt innovative (and hence diverse) approaches to child-rearing.

This raises the question of who the service is being provided for. If humans can be conceived and gestated in vitro (not currently feasible, but likely to be with advances in science), and then raised entirely in baby farms, there are no parents (or even adopted parents). So who is the service being provided for? The answer can only be society.

Perhaps the amazing revelation from looking at child rearing in this fashion is that parents throughout the world are effectively providing a free service to society by creating and nurturing the next generation.

What I want from a beat library

Have you ever found yourself listening to a song and wondering how the beat is constructed? Well, depending on what kind of music it is, you may or may not be well served by what's currently available on the web.

So what would a perfect beat library look like: perhaps most importantly, it needs to be complete (every song ever is a tall order, but why not aim high); it needs to have drum score and drum tab for all the beats; it needs to have user-playable files in midi format and proprietary formats such as fruityloops (this allows users to listen to the beat, but also alter it, which helps in understanding what makes it sound the way it does).

This data will also allow interesting comparisons between beats. For example, when you look up a beat the library can tell you "This is a characteristic

Random paper

Hypothesis: the paper we write on, in particular the line spacing and other pre-printed patterns, affects how we're thinking at the time of writing. A diversity of paper to write would stimulate diverse (creative) thinking.

Idea: random paper - it should be possible, even with a standard dots per inch printer, be able to print paper such that no sheet is ever the same. The pre-printed patterns include: line spacing; line thickness; line width; dots; polygons (regular and irregular); non-horizontal lines; other familiar shapes (e.g. the shapes included in common drawing tools); colours; etc.

Testing the hypothesis: how to measure creativity? One method that has been used before asks a respondent to come up with uses for an object - the more uses the more creative.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Smartphone lecture mic app

For interactive lectures microphones are often passed around the room or taken from person to person by a teach assistant (or equivalent). This often introduces delay into the process, making the interaction less smooth (and also wasting valuable education time). At the same time, almost everyone in a lecture theatre is probably carrying a microphone on them - on their smartphone. All we need is an app that allows us to connect.

How would such a system work? The lecturer could provide a QR code at the beginning of the lecture allowing all participants to log in to that particular lecture. When the participant wants to ask a question, they press a button on the phone and a notification is sent to the lecturer's computer. The lecturer can then choose to take the question, which makes that participant's mic live (connected to the PA system of the lecture theatre via wifi). Likewise, when the lecturer asks a question, participants can press a button on their phone to respond - will the first respondent's mic becoming live. Additionally, the lecturer can pick a student at random from the set logged in if no-one is forthcoming in answering the questions.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Support for athletes

Dennis Cotterell is rumoured to have earned half a million dollars coaching the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang to Olympics gold. Few would doubt the value that a good coach brings in ensuring athletes achieve their maximum potential. But why don't we have equivalent support teams (coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists, etc) behind our top intellectual athletes?

  • Are they less important? No, arguably more so: our top brains are working on things like curing disease, fixing the global economy, and making new products and services that improve quality of life for billions of people
  • Are they less in need of coaching? Unlikely, although not backed up by anything other than personal experience, I would say that it's easier for someone else to get the most out of you than for you to get the most out of yourself
One explanation is that sport is inherently more measurable, in two key ways. Firstly, the performance of athletes is easy to measure (e.g. time taken to do X, distance thrown). Additionally, the cultural importance of the sport is easy to measure (is it an Olympic sport, how many TV viewers does it get, etc). By contrast, intellectual performance is much more subjective.

Another possible explanation is that for intellectual output, the team size can be quite large, whereas for sporting events the number of individuals is in the low tens.

Regardless of these differences, it is a probable and desirable outcome that society expands that coaching skills it has developed into other spheres, particularly the academic/intellectual.

[N.B. leaders (e.g. CEOs, politicians) and actors also have support teams comparable to athletes]

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Learning to get back up

Learning to get back up is the most important thing we can learn. How can we teach it?

Knowing what you know

As important as knowing something is knowing what you know, such that you can compare what you know to what there is to know, and identify areas to focus on.

Setting out what there is to know (i.e. a complete syllabus) is relatively easy, and should be standardised per subject area to enable individuals to map what they know to the what there is to know in a standardised (and hence comparable) fashion.

Syllabuses are typically hierarchical datasets, with subtopics sitting within topics, and subsubtopics sitting in subtopics, etc. However, cross-linking between topics, particularly for dependencies (i.e. prerequisities) is essential.

Original vs independent vs unresearched thought

We can't guarantee our thought is original as we don't know the complete history of all thought of all people.

We can't guarantee our thought is independent, as we might have forgotten something we've read (heard, experienced, etc) and then think the thought is our own (a phenomenon called cryptomnesia).

All we can guarantee is that our thought in unresearched i.e. that what we have written is not directly copied from or paraphrased from other material.

Friday, 10 August 2012


The optimum solution to a human-powered mobility solution that is faster than walking but takes up less space than a folding bike has not yet been solved to my satisfaction (no doubt skaters and bladers would disagree), so here's my ten cents worth.

The key is to harness a natural walking gait in a similar fashion to a cross-trainer and translate this power to wheelled motion. Two inline wheels (like a bicycle on a smaller scale) sit at the bottom of a stem that goes between the legs. The wheels are powered by forwards and backwards foot/leg motion on moving arms, which is translated to rotary motion in the wheels via a gear and chain mechanism that is hidden within the stem of the device. The body of the device also acts as a steering column, allowing a pair of handle bars to control direction.

Futurism predictions website

There is great sport on the perennial activity of watching futurists' predictions not come true (after all, where is my jet pack?). But from time to time, futurists' predictions might actually be useful, and amateurs might actually have some good suggestions. The only problem is that this data is scattered across numerous media.

What we need is a website to collate predictions for the future (both those that have already expired, and those that may still be valid). Such a site would all the crowdsource contributers to submit the published predictions of famous predictors (with data such as: date; predictor; source; prediction; prediction date), and also their own predictions.

Predictions could be tagged, categorisation, searched, voted for and discussed. For predictions on the same subject, vote-weighted averages might give a useful insight (then again they may not!).

And of course they great sport of assessment after the fact (with inevitable whinging - actually, forget the jet pack, I want a space elevator...).

Distinguishing the internet and the world wide web

I read an article recently (I forget where otherwise I would hyperlink) emphasising the importance for users of the internet and the world wide web to understand the differences between them. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, the focus of the article, and many other similar articles explaining the differences, was on treating the world wide web as something that runs on the internet and is a subset of it.

What this article failed to mention is that the world wide web has something that the internet doesn't: content. The internet is a network of networks, but nonetheless a network. It provides connectivity. It does not have content but allows access to it. By contrast, the fundamental feature of the web is (hyperlinked) content.

An attempt at some one line definitions:

The Internet: a network of networks allowing access to a great array of content, most significantly the World Wide Web
The World Wide Web: a collection of hyperlinked content, hosted in servers spread across the world, accesssed via the Internet

Traffic light remote

Wouldn't it be good to have an smartphone-based (for pedestrians and cyclists) or in-car-computer-based (for drivers) app that communicated your impending arrival at a junction to a traffic light, giving you a reduced wait time? This would be particularly advantageous for button-controlled rather than timed pedestrian crossings.

The user would select the relevant traffic light from a location-dependent (via GPS) list.

Such a system would present a great opportunity for municipal authorities to recoup some of their costs of maintaining the roads, with the cost of each message to a traffic light costing a small amount (perhaps from a prepaid account). The fee would need to be sufficient to cover the comms put into each of the traffic lights, and to contribute toward the cost of maintaining roads.

Another potential feature would be automated messaging to particular sets of lights (the ones that annoy you the most!) based on geographic location (via GPS) and speed (via GPS).

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Machine for removing dust from air

Dust can be attracted to a surface by a static electric charge. This property could be used to remove dust from the air. The device would charge a surface, attracting dust, then discharge the surface. The surface could then be washed with water to remove the dust. The water could be filtered and then reused. Applying a superhydrophobic coating to the surface would allow optimum cleaning of the surface and hence aesthetic appeal.

Automated identification, monitoring and reporting of activities

I've written before about the value of capturing data on how long it takes to perform activities. A potential application of developments in 3D imaging, image recognition and 3D video recognition would be activity identification, activity monitoring and activity reporting. This could give us profound insight into our lives, our productivity, etc. And also provide that task-data we need to inform decision-making.

"Liking" rulings, laws and other public decisions

I think there is an opportunity for a dedicated website to list court rulings, laws and other public decisions and allow site visitors to "Like" and "Dislike" the rulings.

Although this kind of information is captured on social media sites like Twitter, the non-dedicated nature of the medium has the potential to weaken the quality of the data. Additionally, a dedicated site could be much more feature-rich, for example allowing a user to track their own vote history and the vote history of other participants.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Puppet suit

It would be interesting to create a full-body suit covered in hooks and wires, such that a person could be fully lifted off the ground and manipulated as if as a puppet. Ideally, sufficient hooks and writes would be built into the suit to allow manipulation of every skeletal muscle (with the exception of hand, foot and face muscles, which would likely require too much detail). The wires would be computer-controlled, or human controlled via a computer interface.

Why would such a suit be useful:
  • The experience itself, of being completely relaxed but moved around in three dimensions would be interesting.
  • The suit could be combined with virtual reality to enhance the puppet experience (or to enhance a virtual reality experience). For example, the person could be manipulated to feel as though they are walking through a virtual world.
  • The suit could potentially be used to stimulate muscle control recovery in people recovering from physical injury, aiding rehabilitation.
  • The suit could be used by gymnasts, dancers, martial artists and other sports people in perfecting moves.
  • Smaller versions could be used for stimulating physical learning in babies and infants.
Puppet glove

Although the detail required to manipulate hand muscles would probably preclude the inclusion of wires controlling the hands in the full puppet suit, puppet gloves could be created to apply the above uses specificaly to the hands. This could be useful in aiding muscians practise fingering.

Urban Dictionary as a source of brand and product names

A logical extention to commercialising memes, is the commercialisation of new language as it arises. Fortunately this data is already collected, in numerous online glossaries, most notably Urban Dictionary for slang.

As with commercialising memes, the key is to identify rising words before they become too mainstream, and before they begin to die. Word popularity is easily obtained from hits to the online glossary, and from Google trends.

There is an opportunity for the online glossaries to cash in on their data, selling to companies and marketing agencies information on rising words, filtered by relevant categorisation and relevant definition. (Of course, Urban Dictionary would probably want to filter out some of the ruder definitions...)


Religion may well have been the opiate of the masses, but in the current era the opiate is much broader, with the vast majority of people indulging in distractionism of some form. The myriad forms and pervasiveness of distractionism mask the unifying theme: that people will focus their minds narrowly to shield them from the enormity, incomprehensibility and absurdity of reality.

UV and natural light for monitors

Increasingly the average human spends a huge proportion (probably too high a proportion) of their day in front of a computer monitor. This appears unlikely to change in the shortterm, but some health consequences could be alleviated by putting UV and natural light emitters on monitors. A low level of UV light would simulate tanning giving the user of the monitor a healthy complexion and allowing Vitamin D production; natural light is thought to reduce seasonal affective disorder and improve mood.

Maximising density of experience

In order to get the most out of our lives we must maximise the density of our experience. How should density of experience be defined: unit of new-to-the-individual experience/information per unit of time.

We can become overwhelmed by density of experience in excess of our ability to absorb and process information. However, I strongly suspect that our ability increases with usage: the higher a person's density of experience in the recent past, the higher the density of experience they can cope with.

The vast majority of people (myself included) do not maximise their density of experience. They squander time on the routine, the familiar or the trivial; they do not push themselves, and society neither pushes them or enables them to push themselves.


So how can this be remedied? There are a couple of steps (per person):
  • Identify capacity to absorb and process information
  • Monitor density of experience
  • Undertake activities that have a higher density of experience
It might, for example, be possible to identify density of experience by monitoring neurological activity, and similarly the side effects associated with overstimulation. This data would enable us to determine a baseline capacity, to monitor density of experience in real time, and also to identify those activities that are particularly rich in stimulation.


Maximising the density of experience will increase the quality and quantity of our creative output. Our creativity is arguably the single greatest attribute of the human species, by enhancing it we can make humanity even more human.