Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Assumed knowledge

The level of assumed knowledge in many situations, be they professional or social, is often unreasonably high given the diversity of such situations and hence the collective total of what would be considered assumed knowledge in at least one situation.

Why is this a problem?

Conversational awkwardness at the least. At worst, fear of asking questions leads to lack of knowledge transfer. And absence of knowledge leads to poor decision-making and mistakes.


Only engage with people with the same knowledge base. This is almost impossible to achieve, and undesirable due to the cross-fertilisation value of multi-disciplinary interaction.

Greater cultural acceptance of diverse knowledge bases, possibly driven by explicit education on the matter in the formal education system.

Pay to communicate to

How much would you pay to communicate with someone you know-of but don't know, if you could be guaranteed that they would read the message? For a fairly large proportion of the population, the answer to that question is more than zero. So there's a business model in here somewhere.

Users would pay a fee to communicate with any person (recipient) set up on the system. The price would be  dependent on market rate, i.e. more for popular people, such as to reduce the volume to a level that the recipients would cope with. The recipients signing up for the service would guarantee to read (or watch, or listen to, etc) a certain number of messages per month.

It might also be interesting to introduce the option for a (possibly partial) refund for relevant communication, i.e. messages that the recipient actually benefitted from receiving. There would likely be sufficient unwanted messages in the service that such a costs of refunds could be born, and the chance of a refund for relevant communication would also stoke demand in the user-base.

Population by age by sex

What is wrong with the above graph? In some ways, not too much, it's a very common way of presenting population by age by sex. But one of the most interesting datapoints that can be revealed by the graph is the ratio of genders in a particular age band. It is almost impossible for the human eye to discerd this as the bars are not next to each other. A more sensible approach is below. Why has such an efficient method become the standard?

Benefits of ambidexterity

Hypothesis: ambidextrous people learn more if they switch hands during writing something compared to if they use a single hand.

Test: relatively simple recall testing with a sufficient population of ambidextrous people divided into four populations (left hand no change, right hand no change, midway change from left to right, midway change from right to left)

Implication: it may be the case that there is potential value in teaching all children to be ambidextrous if the learning dividend is sufficient.

Activity time recording based on GPS data

With the data from always-on GPS devices (smartphones, in-car devices, etc) it should be possible to identify regular journeys relatively easily. A useful service based on the analysis of this data would be a monthly report on your journeys: frequency; mean journey time; median journey time; maximum journey time; minimum journey time.

It should also be possible to identify location-based activities. For example, going to the gym, going to a paritcular shop, going to work, etc. The equivalent report would include: frequency; mean time spent; median time spent; maximum time spent; minimum time spent; etc.

The general problem of being heard

In the current model of content delivery, promotion and review, mediocre pictures of cats get more attention than this blog. And let me stress, I'm not talking about good pictures of cats here, as there are some pretty amazing and entertaining ones, but the really poor ones. I'd like to thing that at least some of the content of this blog is of more value than those (although I have considered the possibility that the entire content of this blog may be of less value that a single poor quality photograph of a cat).

In the current model of delivery, promotion of valuable content is not as easy as the value of the content might suggest. In fact it's quite difficult. Marketing (promotion) to the rescue. But the problem with marketing is that it costs money, which creates a barrier. Without wanting to detract from the skill and hard work of advertisers and other promoters, I would prefer a world in which such activities were not necessary.

So how would that world work?

What's needed is more organisation and some volunteers. Each volunteer would sign up to review X amount of content per month (where X could be number of pictures, minutes of video, minutes of audio, etc), of particular genres (tag-based rather than discrete categories). Submitters would be allowed to submit Y amount of content per month, with Y increasing with successful submissions, falling with unsuccessful submissions, but never falling below a certain minimum (everyone, no matter what their past crimes, should still have a voice). Ideally (and this would of course depend on number of voluteers and the amount they volunteer to review, and the volume of content), each piece of content would be reviewed by multiple volunteers.

Additional tiers of volunteers would review anything with an aggregate positive review emerging from the tier below. The number of tiers would likely need to be higher for popular genres. Out of the top of the tier hierarchy emerges a quality content feed that non-volunteers could subscribe to (via email, RSS, etc).

What would motivate the volunteers?

Volunteers could potentially be motivated by some kind of points system for "finds" of quality content.

How does this differ from existing mechanisms?

By creating a distinct volunteer class it segregates the audience between consumers and reviewers. Although any consumer could chose to become a reviewer, the commitment that goes with it would (hopefully) instill responsibility.

A more responsible reviewer class that happened upon content that was mis-tagged would be more likely to redirect it to an appropriate reviewer, rather than that content falling ignored by the wayside.

A more responsible reviewer class would (and would be required to) give feedback to the content creator, helping them improve the creative process.

The volunteers would become experts in their niche, able to spot plagarism and also identify true original content.


No content should go unreviewed.

N.B. The irony that is post on being heard will likely not be heard is not lost on the author.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Spending decisions

All personal spending decisions are the replication of macro-economic resource allocation decisions on a micro scale. Every time we spend, we should be asking ourselves: is this how we want society to allocate resources? This line of thinking is potentially a useful ally in controlling our inefficient spending urges.

Carpet for stairs

Carpets are one of the most insanely unhygienic things that we introduce into our homes - they are at the bad end of gravity, and accumulate dirt, dust, stains, etc that cannot easily be removed. But they have their uses - they are comfortable underfoot and dampen noise. The latter purpose is particularly valuable on wooden stairs, which have a habit of creaking.

So what's the alternative? Small bits of rug clamped in place on each stair. These can easily be removed and washed, meeting the hygiene factor. And they can easily be replaced (to deal with staining). To ensure that sufficient grip and absence of movement on the stairs (essential to avoid injury) strong clamps are needed, but in addition to this the rug would sit on top our a rubber matting that would stand proud of the clamp.

It should be possible to design such a clamp to be both aesthetically pleasing and hold the rugs in place as tight (if not tighter) than current stair/carpet configurations.

Tractor wheel width

I've always been slightly troubled about the amount of waste associated with tractors' wheels trampling perfectly good crops - it took me a while to accept that the benefits of pesticide, herbicide and fertiliser application would outweigh the cost of trampled crops.

But there remains an opportunity to reduce the level of trampling and thus increase harvests. I've previously written about the possibility of drone helicopters applying the pesticide, herbicide and fertiliser, but I also think there is something that could be done with tractors: namely having narrower wheels.

The downside of narrower wheels is of course that they sink into the mud. But this is less of a problem for a wider diameter wheel, where the extent of sinking relative to the size of the wheel is lower. Are tractor wheel diameters at their upper maximum? I don't think so, so maybe this would work.

Basic reminder service

I previously wrote about automating memory refreshers. As a step towards seeing that idea implemented, I have built a basic reminder service.

It allows you to input topic headings, terminology, etc as you learn. And then sends a summary email of each week's submission sent a month late (or at a delay of your chosing).

Check it out.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Limited by shared limited by guarantee hybrid

Typically, capital is only really needed to start an organisation, for any significant changes in size and to help it in difficult financial times. Ignoring the second, and relying on debt finance for the latter, it might be possible to create a company structure that facilitates the first but allows the original shareholders to move away leaving the company in the public domain.

How might this look? The key is that the benefit that can accrue to the original investors is capped. Any profit in addition to this would be the companies (perhaps held in trust for the current and future employees of the company). As such, the original capitalist investors are rewarded adequately for the risk that they take, but eventually are able to divest, leaving the company of the employees owned by the employees for the employees (although not directly via share ownership).

Why would the original investor want to cap his/her potential earnings? Well, this could be forced by government regulation (at this point the right-of-spectrum reader has no doubt had a heart attack!), but it might be an effective way to recruit a motivated workforce. Also, the original founders might like the possibility of leaving a public legacy (surprisingly few people are purely motivated by profit).

Are there any other downsides to such an approach? The cap on the original investor's benefit results in less capital owned by that original investor allowing him/her to create new companies. However, the capital still exists and is within the hands of an established organisation to help launch new products. This could lead to an overall trend for more stable companies, but fewer innovative startups. But then again, many of the wealthy who made their money from founding new companies don't invest in innovation, so it would be very difficult to assess this either way.

Conclusion: this is worth trying out.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

What would happen if we stopped discovering new things?

The rate of change of society wouldn't slow for a long time as we are nowhere near fully exploring everything we can do with current technology, and rolling that technology out to all potential locations and uses.

Further, the technologies that enable us to make discoveries have themselves not been fully explored, so it would in fact be difficult for discovery to stop. As an example, we have the technology to sequence genomes. Each successive genome that we sequence could be argued to be a discovery in its own right, and each facilitates new discovery (e.g. finding novel useful genes).

Heating houses with distributed computing

Homes need heating, distributed computing (e.g. Folding@Home) needs doing. Servers provide an efficient form of electricity-powered heating that have the added benefit of being computationally useful.

How might such a situation work? A server-boiler would be installed much like an existing boiler, with connections to the water and electricity supplies, and additionally a network interface. Based on the home's heating requirements, the server would be timed to start up and accept distributed computing tasks. The heat from the servers is transferred to the water, and the computation continues until sufficient hot water has been generated.

From the users point of view the boiler acts entirely like a normal boiler, but with the added feel-good for them that their boiler is helping the cure diseases. The server management would be entirely remote, potentially by the distributed computing project.

Is it economical? At today's prices a server-boiler would be more expensive than a standard boiler. But as computer pricing becomes cheaper it might become cost-effective, particularly if subsidised by commercial distributed computing projects.

SaaS aggregator

As cloud-based Software-as-a-Service becomes more common, the end-user, whether consumer or business, becomes increasingly dependent on it, and hence increasingly interested in how a collection of software-as-a-service will interact. The situation is particularly acute for businesses, where businesses want all their databases to join up: CRM system; operational system; finance system; etc.

The optimum solution is a SaaS aggregator that sits between the end users and the individual SaaS services, providing:
  • shared login
  • shared databases
  • user management
  • licensing management
When logged into the SaaS aggregator, the customer can see available individual SaaS solutions that they can purchase and add into their current package. The SaaS aggregator could provide price and feature comparison, and product reviews.

The benefits of automation

How long does it take to turn off a light? Perhaps a couple of seconds, depending on how far away the switch is. How much energy does it take to turn off a light? I'm not going to guess, but it's an incredibly small amount compared with energy we consume on a daily basis.

My point is that having automated lights, or those that turn on and off at a verbal command, are not going to save us huge amounts of time: certainly less than a robot vacuum cleaner (1h per week) or a robotic car (1h per day of time that can be spent doing other things). Nor are they going to save us lots of energy (compared to say the benefit of a lift in a tall building). And yet we still want them. Why?

My suggestion is that it's not just about the time taken to do a task, or the effort expended doing a task, but that there is a cost to humans per task that is independent of time, effort, difficulty, etc. It's a kind of mental exhertion. I appreciate that this is unscientific, but that's where good science starts - with a hypothesis like this and a goal of measuring, proving or disproving.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Fan of funnels

I was reading recently about Mass Megawatts Augmentation System, which makes use of funnels to amplify wind, similar to my post on the potential for underground wind turbines. I had originally conceived of pivoting funnels that, with the help of fins, would point towards and away from the wind. However, I wonder now whether it would be possible to have zero moving parts at the top of the device, just a set of funnels in a fan arrangement.

Depending on the wind direction, one set of funnels would get more wind than the others. Inside the body would be a series of pipes to direct the wind down, through the generator, back up and out. A system of valves could be used to ensure that the pipes connecting the active funnels (i.e. those best angled to the wind) is routed to the turbine.

Obviously this system benefits from having the turbine at ground level for easy maintenance and installation, and zero moving parts (and no maintenance) up in the air flow. Would it work?