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Month: January, 2019

Become a prey animal by putting eyes on the side of your head. Makes you a safer driver, but also encourages packs of howling wolves to attack you, so beware!

Background:

Human vision is limited to a ~180° horizontal angle (Figure 1) and an even smaller vertical angle.

This means you can easily be blindsided by objects coming from behind you. In ancient times, this was less of a worry, but with electric cars, electric scooters, and bicycles, there are a huge number of fast-moving and potentially-lethal objects that humans must be aware of.

 

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Fig. 1: Normal human vision only uses less than half of the total potentially-available visual information. Many prey animals have nearly 360º vision, so clearly this limitation is not an inherent limitation of biology.

Proposal:

Since cars are now the “apex predator” that is ranked above humans in the food chain, humans should adapt and become prey animals. This requires a visual adaptation to allow for 360º vision, which can be accomplished as shown in Figure 2.

 

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Fig. 2: These “earmuff cameras” feed into the glasses in front, which provide a highly-warped fisheye view of the wearer’s environment. Although binocular vision may be impaired, the benefits of total visual awareness cannot be overstated.

Conclusion:

The example in figure 2 requires complicated electronics, but there’s probably a way to create an optical 360º-vision system that uses no electronics.

A similar product already exists: rear view mirror spy glasses—inexpensive sunglasses with mirrored “wings” that allow you to see behind you.

PROS: May reduce the number of deaths and injuries from accidents caused by a lack of visual situational awareness.

CONS: Can the human visual cortex handle this type of input data? Only one way to find out—experiment on some undergraduates.

Keep track of the amount of time that interns and temporary employees will be at a company with an “employment countdown clock” on each employee badge.

Background:

Many companies issue ID badges to their employees.

Sometimes these come in multiple forms: one type of badge for permanent workers, and a different color for temporary employees.

Proposal:

In order make the time-limited nature of temporary employees more clear—and perhaps to remind the temporary employee to start applying for jobs again—a low-power timer could be integrated into the badge (see Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: These two styles of time-limited contractor badges make it easy to tell how long a temporary employee will remain at the company. On the right, the e-ink “progress bar” style gives an obvious visual indication of remaining time.

Conclusion:

This approach was illustrated in the 1976 film Logan’s Run, where a crystal in each citizen’s hand would change color when a citizen was about to “expire.”

If you run a a Silicon Valley-based startup, you should definitely integrate a timer into future employee badges.

PROS: Allows employees to avoid starting long-term projects with just-about-to-leave temporary employees.

CONS: E-ink displays are surprisingly expensive in low volumes, so these high-tech badges may cost slightly more. One cheaper approach would be a circular “countdown clock” wheel in each badge that employees would manually update on a weekly basis.

 

Re-experience the process of learning to read AND prevent spies from stealing your secrets!

Background:

Once you know how to read, it’s impossible to see text the same way as you did before—you will inescapably recognize the symbols as letters the instant that you see them.

The issue:

This “automatic” parsing of written language makes it easy to forget how much effort was required to initially learn how to read. This inhibits people’s ability to empathize with children and second-language learners as they acquire literacy.

Proposal:

In order to let you remember what it was like to not be able to read, this hypothetical browser plug-in will simply change all web fonts to an illiteracy-simulating “dingbats” font (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: With the “Wingdings” font replacing the standard web page font, every Internet site becomes totally incomprehensible, letting you re-experience the lack of ability to read. In order to obtain proficiency with this new alphabet, a user would need to learn 26 lower-case letters, 26 upper-case letters, ~10 punctuation marks, and 10 digits, for a grand total of ~70–80 symbols.

Note that the new “letters” actually do directly correspond to the letters of the English alphabet, so you could hypothetically re-experience the alphabet-learning experience by using this plugin.

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Fig. 2: Here is what a block of English text might look like to someone who is totally unfamiliar with Latin letters.

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Fig. 3: The importance of heraldry and easily-understood symbols is more evident when you cannot read!

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Fig. 4: This approximates what a medieval peasant would have experienced reading a manuscript about the Hundred Year’s War. Note how much more important the images seem when you can’t read the text.

Secret bonus feature:

If you set your browser to a “dingbats” font and actually learn how to read it, then you’ll be able to thwart spies who try to read your screen over your shoulder. The CIA should mandate that all of its laptops be set to this custom font mode.

Conclusion:

If you want to remember what it was like before you could read, you should set your browser font to Wingdings or another “dingbats” font.

PROS: Increases ability to empathize with people learning to read. Makes it difficult for spies to read your secrets.

CONS: Your browser might get stuck in this mode, and then you’d have to learn a totally new (yet almost completely useless) alphabet.

P.S. You can also experience this phenomenon by just going to a Wikipedia page in a language you can’t read. Try one of these: https://or.wikipedia.org/, https://am.wikipedia.org/ , or https://si.wikipedia.org/ (unless you somehow read all three, which is exceptionally unlikely).

Improve public transit efficiency and never worry about train delays again! One incredibly practical engineering trick that you won’t believe isn’t already a standard feature.

Background:

Rail-based transportation has an inescapable problem: in a single-track situation, there is no way for a train to pull over and let another train pass.

The issue:

Thus, a single stopped train can block an entire track indefinitely. And a slow train can’t be overtaken by an express train.

This can be solved by adding multiple rails, but that is prohibitively expensive except in very small sections of track. Additionally, it increases recurring maintenance costs.

Proposal:

There is one incredibly simple solution to this problem: just put an additional set of tracks on top of every train car (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: Each train car has a set of standard rails mounted on top, shown here in red. The very front-most and last-most cars must have a ramp as well.

 

Now, a slowed or stopped train can be passed by simply driving the passing train over the stopped train (Figure 2).

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Fig. 2: Here, the passing train (purple) is able to pass the stopped train by going onto the second set of tracks (red). The passing train would presumably also have a second rail on top, but it is omitted here for clarity, and definitely not because I forgot to draw it.

 

Conclusion:

As seen in the illustration above, this will definitely work on train cars weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds, so construction on this project can begin immediately without further testing.

PROS: Effectively turns every single track into a double track.

CONS: May cause complications if this method is employed while the being-passed train enters a tunnel during the passing process.