Sunday, 30 June 2013

What I want from a battery charger

Battery chargers (and rechargeable batteries) are interesting products. Like many other complex products there are a fair number of things to consider when buying one, but most consumers don't understand what they should buy and why. If you're similarly in the dark, the Wikipedia page has useful information on the differences between smart, manual and timer chargers, and the benefits of smart chargers.

So why am I interested in battery chargers? Partly for environmental reasons (we throw away too many batteries), partly for efficiency (we don't make good use of our batteries). I think rechargeable batteries are a  great case study on making more efficient and environmentally-friendly use of our resources.

What do I want from a battery charger? Much of what the top-end battery chargers do: separate channel charging; smart charging cycle management; refresh/reconditioning; battery capacity testing; etc. This is all useful getting best use out of batteries, and in lengthening the mean time before replacement.

But what battery chargers don't seem to do, however, is collect data. Charging data (voltage/time) and battery capacity testing data can easily be collected by a charger and communicated to computers via wifi (or Bluetooth). This information could be transmitted back to manufacturers (via the Internet) to aid in their battery or charger development, and to give them real-world use data. To get really granular data, each battery could be printed with a unique barcode or QR code. This would allow sensors in the charger to collect per-battery data, transmitted to users, and back to manufacturers. (Consumers could be provided with stick-on bar codes to label up existing batteries.)

Do you like this color? An app

Do you know which colors you like? Are you sure? Wouldn't it be good to have some data?

All that's needed is a simple app. Running on your phone (or other computer, or device) the app would at regular intervals prompt you with random colors, asking you to rate them (potentially a simple 1-100 scale, or potentially a more complex scale of the emotions elicited). Over time, a full dataset of preferences is built up, with a pattern likely to emerge pointing you to your favourite color (or favorite color for a particular emotion).

Innovative minds

How does society best make use of innovative minds? Is the current structure optimal? If not, what are its weaknesses?

These are difficult questions, but perhaps an easier place to start is: what do innovative minds needs? The answer to this question is almost certainly:

  • education - filling the minds with information from which to make connections between; and
  • feedback - the innovative mind will make connections, and generate an output. Such minds require feedback on that output in order to further develop it, refine it, or (if it's not a goodun) to discard it and move on to the next
So, does the current structure of society provide sufficient education and feedback?

  • education - I think we're OK at getting education done up until graduate stage (although it's not without problems around equality of access, attendence, syllabus, etc). But lifelong learning is pretty lacking and unstructured, yet essential (I'm sure its not just young minds that have ideas)
  • feedback - I think we're light years off where we need to be with feedback. We need a system of mentors such that everyone has a mentor. These mentors would be the first port of call for feedback, and their primary responsibility would be encouragement and facilitation of development of ideas, together with the referral to other experts as required. Even where innovative ideas are not developed into something practical, they should be recorded and published, as they might spark innovation in others.

The role of technology in political debate

Before getting started on this post, it's worth noting that I define technology pretty broadly. I think of it as any process, technique, tool or system that is not is not inherent (i.e. is not genetic in origin, but has been created by man) but that allows man to act on the environment, or each other, to achieve a goal. It is about practical knowledge - knowledge that let's you do things. As an example of the breadth of my definition, my broad definition of technology includes language, as it is a technique that allows man to coordinate acts with others to achieve a goal, and is something that has built up over years - it is something created by man rather than something in our genes.

Today's observation is that the role of technology in political and moral debate is too frequently ignored. However, the available technology sets what is practical, which in turn sets morality*.

Take for example the debate between whether the outcomes or intentions of actions are relevant when making a moral judgement. Those that focus on the outcomes in part do so because of the current limitation in ability to know intentions. But what if mind-to-mind or mind-to-computer communications technologies development sufficiently that knowing intentions is entirely possible. Does that not change how we look at that debate?

Another frequent debate is about the tragedy of the commons. This is relevant to political debate as a key argument for capitalism (in the capitalism vs communism debate) is that people will not put in as much effort to the maintenance of public assets as private assets, therefore it is better that assets be in private hands (there's obviously much more to the debate than that!). But what if monitoring technology could be used to effectively measure people's regard for a common asset: catching the people who drop chewing gum on the pavement; or measuring how hard people work at a shared task. If such technology existed (and it may yet do so), might our sentiments dip in favour of communism?

And last, but by no means least, nearly all political and moral debate assumes the existence of multiple individuals. But what if that paradigm were to shift? What if we assimilate into the hive mind? Will not the subjects of morality and political science cease to exist?

*I don't really believe in morality, but that's a separate topic...!

Baby pod

There are some good gadgets out there to keep babies entertained and happy, but have we gone far enough in designing the perfect baby care and entertainment system? Here are some requirements for a "baby pod" a device to hold, move and entertain babies:

The platform

  • A mattress/cushion or hammock-style (i.e. shaped fabric) container to hold the baby


  • Rotation
  • Rocking side-to-side
  • Rocking forward-backward
  • Movement up and down
  • Vibration
  • Combinations of the above movements programmable

  • Audio
  • Video (webcam)
  • Movement sensor (e.g. Kinect)
  • Heart rate (perhaps via Bluetooth enabled smart clothing)
  • Eye tracking
  • Temperature
  • (As much other biological monitoring as feasible)

Sensory inputs
  • Audio
  • Touch screen (see also this on tablets) (but controversial)
  • Multi-jointed robot arm holding various objects (like a mobile), able to move those objects in multiple dimensions
  • The ability to infer the baby's preferences from the monitoring (e.g. heart rate, eye tracking) and respond accordingly. For example, if the screen shows a set of images and the eye tracking indicates that these images are stimulating to the baby, this information is storage, and these images are subsequently used when monitoring inputs indicate that the baby is bored. As another example, the optimum set of movements to calm the baby when unhappy can be determined through trial and error.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Would managers be paid more than workers in a perfect world?

I posted recently about product legislation in a perfect world, and have subsequently found that the concept of a perfect world is a useful one for exploring logical extremes without immediate ridicule, such that they might then be translated back to our world.

Today's perfect world thought is on managers. Perhaps in the perfect world then would be no individuals, only a collective mind with a single purpose - not the myriad of competing forces we have today. But if we don't go as far as a hive mind, and retain individuals, then it's likely we'll need managers and leaders.

A brief note on managers vs leaders: managers manage things (whether those things be people or other resources), making sure they're in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. It's a logistics game. Leaderships is about people and motivation, about inspiration and empathy.

Back to our perfect world, where we're not a hive mind and we do have individuals. Another assumption is required before we consider pay differential for managers and leaders: whether we're in a communist or meritocratic regime. In some conceptions of the former (arguably all true conceptions of the former) pay differential would be nil.

So, we're in a non-hive mind meritocratic perfect world: should managers be paid more? Actually, one last thing to clear up before we answer this question: are we in a world that considers one's genetics and upbringing a form of merit, or just working harder?

A supply-and-demand based meritocracy (like those that exist in the Western world today) would value genetics and upbringing as a form of merit. As such, the capabilities of good management and leadership, if sufficiently rare, would command a higher price in the market. Are good management and leadership rare? The answer is probably "yes", although this is the point at which evidence-based research should step in. Arguably, there is much highly paid management and leadership in this world that is not "good", and those with good management and leadership skills not in such positions.

A hard-work based meritocracy would currently be, and would have been before now, impossible to implement in practise due to the difficultly of measurement. However, with advances in monitoring technology (monitoring body and brain) effort may become measurable, and hence a pure hard-work based meritocracy possible. Do managers and leaders work harder than their minions? In some cases "yes", but there are many workers who put in more effort than their managers/leaders. Again, this is the point that evidence-based research should step in.


You can disagree with highly paid management and leadership if:
  • You advocate a hive mind (albeit technology permitting);
  • You advocate communism;
  • You advocate hard-work-based-meritocracy (unless you genuinely believe management works harder); OR
  • You advocate genetics-and-upbringing-based-meritocracy AND believe the supply of good management and leadership does not justify the market price
You cannot disagree with highly paid management and leadership if:
  • You advocate genetics-and-upbringing-based-meritocracy AND acknowledge a constrained supply of good management and leadership

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Wind power from gusty, direction-changing wind

I've been thinking recently about obtaining wind power from gusty, direction-changing wind - the kind of wind that classic wind turbines are not great at harnessing, but the kind of wind prevalent in valleys and cities.

One possibility would be to have a magnet attached to some kind of cup or sail, and within a coil. Any movement of the magnet induces electric current in the coil, which can then be harnessed.

Another possibility would be to use a gimbal, like a gyroscope. This could be used to house a rotor and blades (as from a conventional horizontal-axis wind turbine), keeping the rotor always pointing towards the wind. Alternatively, the gimbal could be set up with blades such that the wind turns the gimbal rings. At each joint of the gimbal would be a generator to harvest the rotory motion.

Product legislation in a perfect world - recycling plans

What would product legislation look like in the perfect world? That's a tough question to answer without defining a perfect world. If the perfect world shares attributes with communism, there would only be one product for each task; if the perfect world shares attributes with capitalism, there would be a myriad of competing products.

But common to both of these would be a requirement to make efficient use of resources, which would require products to be recycled. As such, product legislation would require that recycling plan is in place before a product can be released. (Potentially even, a recycling plan would need to be in place to cover the recycling of materials used in prototyping a new product.)

An interesting aspect to this thought, is that it would require a government-level (although potentially autonomous / quasi-autonomous) database of products. Such a thing is unthinkable at the moment, because so many products exist, products pop into and out of existence with such high frequency, and the cost of maintaining such a database and the bureaucracy that would come with it would be unworkable. But with information technology, is such a database inplausible? The headache comes in inputing the data, and keeping the data up-to-date. If much of that work can be done by an AI, such a database should be possible.