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Month: July, 2019

Never be frustrated by a slow download again, thanks to this new “file download” interface that will give you a newfound appreciation of even the slowest download speed! A new and improved semi-“skeuomorphic” user interface paradigm.

Background:

Sometimes, it seems like a file is taking forever to download (or copy). A speed of 160 kilobytes per second may seem excruciatingly slow, but that’s actually an entire late-1970s floppy disk (Figure 1) per second.

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Fig. 1: This is the type of floppy disk that is legitimately floppy, not the 3.5 inch “floppy disk” that is immortalized in the “save file” icon and “💾” emoji.

Proposal:

Instead of just showing a slowly filling up progress bar when downloading (or copying) a file, a computer should show an animation of old floppy disks flying across the screen (Fig 2).

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Fig. 2: These zooming floppy disks make it clear that a LOT of data is being copied.

This will help emphasize how much data is actually being copied: potentially hundreds of floppy disks per second!

Think about how much faster a copy would seem if it were presented in this fashion, instead of as an incredibly slowly-filling-up progress bar.

Bonus second proposal:

Instead of showing just the number of floppy disks per second, the file copy could be represented as a number of monks transcribing the file onto an enormous vellum scroll.

If we assume that an efficient monk could write eight bytes (~8 characters) per second, then a 10 megabyte per second transfer speed would need to be represented as (10 * 1024 * 1024 / 8) 1.3 million monks in a row, all writing to the same file (Figure 3).

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Fig. 3: Over 1.3 million monks would need to be rendered (shown here: 4) in order to accurately depict a 10 megabyte/second copy speed.

That is probably too many monks to display on a screen at once, but the screen could slowly zoom in and out of specific regions of this enormous scroll-copying effort to really give the end user an appreciation for the effort involved.

PROS: Gives an impatient computer user a newfound appreciation of how fast their data transfer really is.

CONS: Spending so much processing power on rendering images of monks copying a file might negatively impact both battery life / energy efficiency and file-copy speed.

Evade pesky zoning laws with this one new scheme that lets you (maybe) turn a commercial building into a personal residence!

Background:

In order to support technological progress, many people are willing to endure great hardships.

The issue:

For example, most Americans are willing to drive for 30–60 minutes every day on their commute, just so that they can help create a market for new types of transportation [*].

One might imagine that a person in the hour-long-commute situation would just move closer to their job, but local zoning restrictions (Figure 1) often make this impossible.

[*] For example, the car, the diesel car, the hybrid car, the electric car, the “ride-sharing” car (actually just a taxi connected to a phone app), and the elusive and currently-hypothetical “self-driving” car.

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Fig. 1: In the city map above, red areas are commercially zoned, and purple ares are residentially zoned. There is often a long travel distance to get between zones. (Real zoning is presumably more complex than “residential” vs “commercial,” but 95% of the author’s knowledge here comes from SimCity, so give me a break, man.)

Proposal:

Here are two proposed ways to help people live closer to their jobs:

  • Start a new “night watchman training” business with extremely comfortable suspiciously-apartment-sized rooms, and charge people a rent-sized amount of money for on-the-job training / courses for students. (If the students somehow fail to stay awake, they can just keep paying for the course as long as they want.)
  • Start a “sleep study clinic” (Figure 2). Normally, this is a legitimate business that diagnoses sleep apnea and other issues. Our modified version would be similar, but cheaper to set up, since it would not require any expensive medical equipment: in fact, the only piece of equipment supplied is a 5-dollar stopwatch (included with the apartment). When a resident is about to go to sleep, they can start the stopwatch, and when they wake up, they will have a vague idea of how long they were asleep. Naturally, this would be a paid service (costing about the same as the prevailing rent in the local neighborhood).

 

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Fig. 2: By converting this building from a traditional office to a “sleep study clinic,” it will be completely non-suspicious to see a bunch of rooms that look like furnished apartments, occupied by residents who stay there overnight.

Conclusion:

This is a plan that some developer should definitely try, just to see what happens.

PROS: Might help people rethink their established notions of what a “normal” commute should be.

CONS: Some overzealous “spirit of the law, not the letter of the law” lawyers and city council members would definitely put an end to a scheme like this. Also you might go to prison and/or owe somebody a bunch of money in fines.

The “jigsaw puzzle credit card” is the new ultimate invention in credit card security. Refuse to get a new corporate credit card if it doesn’t come with this incredible feature!

Background:

Credit cards are a popular payment method, especially for business transactions.

The issue:

Sometimes, high-value business transactions require the approval of more than one person.

Additionally, if a credit card is lost or stolen, someone will have to meticulously verify that no fraudulent transactions were made on it, which can be very time-consuming!

Proposal:

Both of these problems, and more, can be solved by physically cutting the credit card up into multiple pieces.

Each piece would be held by a different individual, and the card would need to be re-assembled (like a jigsaw puzzle, as in Figure 1) prior to any transaction.

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Fig. 1: This card can be disassembled into four pieces, all of which would be required in order to either use the chip or read the complete credit card number.

With this “jigsaw puzzle credit card” system, any transaction will be physically impossible without getting the approval of all card-piece holders, thus removing the need for complicated reimbursement systems involving people signing off on business expenses.

As an added benefit, if only a subset of the credit card pieces are stolen, the card will become unusable and the thief will be unable to make any unauthorized transactions.

This would be useful for both business travels and individual users who were, say, traveling to a foreign country with their friends or family.

Conclusion:

It would be possible to make cards in many different styles: for example, a card could be split into only two pieces, or as many as 8 or so before it started becoming impractical.

PROS: Facilitates commerce! Also works with debit cards, ATM cards, library cards, etc.

CONS: Each piece’s unusual shapes would make it difficult to fit into a wallet. Perhaps each piece could be slotted into a plastic “dummy” credit card, thus maintaining wallet compatibility.

Prism glasses will improve your posture! Never hunch over your laptop like some kind of Quasimodo again!

Background:

Since laptops are so convenient and portable, many people work in locations that are not set up for long-term ergonomic comfort (for example, dining room tables or coffeeshop counters, e.g. Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: A setup like this is a common work environment, despite its presumably questionable OSHA rating.

The issue:

Since these locations were never designed for laptop use, they are typically set up in such a way that the laptop keyboard and screen are way too low, and you often see people hunching over their laptops in ridiculous fashion (Figure 2).

 

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Fig. 2: This highly dubious pose is the common reality of laptop use in non-optimal situations, and is, additionally, an affront to the human form. People tend to blame themselves for having “bad posture,” but really it’s an inescapable element of such a work environment.

Ideally, people imagine that they would sit up straight, as shown in Figure 3. But that is incompatible with the position of the computer screen.

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Fig. 3: This “ideal posture” scenario is totally unrealistic given the position of the laptop. The user will inevitably return to the situation shown in Figure 2.

Proposal:

Luckily, the fix is simple: a modified version of belay glasses, a type of prism glasses used in rock climbing that were allow wearers to look up without craning their necks.

Except in this case, the prism glasses will look down at the laptop screen, rather than up, as illustrated in Figure 4.

 

 

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Fig. 4: These “prism glasses” (in this case, actually a giant prism attached to a hat) are  suspended in such a way that the user is able to look directly at the prism, yet see the laptop screen below. The prism would presumably not actually be purple, although technically that would be an option.

Conclusion:

Since prism-based belaying glasses already exist (surprisingly, only commercially available after 2007!), laptop prism glasses are probably not totally infeasible.

It would also be possible to use a VR headset to set up something like this, but at that point you might as well just set up a proper work space.

PROS: Improve your posture!

CONS: The “sweet spot” for seeing the screen is probably extremely narrow, so any movement of the wearer’s head may move the laptop screen out of the user’s view. Additionally, even the slightest imperfections in the prism would probably make text very difficult to read.

Teachers: stop sending out antiquated elementary school report cards! Instead of assigning a row of letter grades to each student, assign a huge matrix of letters instead!

Background:

Elementary school letter grades theoretically indicate the achievement of a certain degree of competency in a subject (e.g. a fourth-grader receiving an “A” in math would have learned all of the math that a fourth-grader is expected to know).

The issue:

There are a couple of immediate problems with the way report cards present this information:

  1. There is pressure to assign a full range of grades across students; even in a theoretical world where all students in a class achieved all the expected proficiencies, there would be pressure on the teacher to further differentiate the students into “extremely proficient” (A), “basically the same but maybe missed a couple questions” (B), and “I guess mis-read a couple more questions” (C). But this is unfair to the students, who are all at more or less equivalent competency.
  2. By having the “A” and “F” be absolute maximum / minimum values, it’s unclear what competency a student actually has: a kindergartener would almost certainly get an “F” in a calculus class, but it would be easy for a reasonably competent calculus student to get that same “F” grade despite having a decent understanding of the material.

Finally, the current report card system presents knowledge as a “treadmill”: school just gets more and more difficult, until some students give up. This is not a reasonable way to depict the acquisition of knowledge, and gives an unintentional sense of futility to the whole educational endeavor.

Proposal:

Instead of just showing how the student is faring in the current grade, the proposed new style of report card is “progression based” (Figure 1): it shows how the student is doing overall, on a spectrum ranging from kindergarten all the way through Nobel-Prize-worthy research.

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Fig. 1: Here, we see a hypothetical nearly-straight-“A” report card for a third-grader. But instead of just showing “A, A, B, A, B,” this report card puts the overall amount of knowledge achieved into perspective: this third-grader would be unlikely to be able to successfully present a Ph.D. defense or obtain a Nobel Prize, so clearly there is still more knowledge that could (theoretically) be acquired.

This has at least two benefits:

  1.  It allows a student to have the satisfaction of “locking in” some progress: rather than school being an endless treadmill of increasing difficulty, it becomes obvious that skills are accumulating. This might be motivational to a student who would otherwise give up upon getting a “D” in calculus.
  2. It prevents a straight-“A” student from losing motivation by incorrectly concluding that they have learned everything in the world, just because they’ve mastered the 3rd-grade curriculum.

Implementation Detail:

Actually implementing this sort of report card has at least one difficulty: how do you assess from a 4th-grade math test whether or not a student has learned college-level math?

One possible solution would be to add a few unreasonably-difficult questions to each test: for example, in the 4th-grader’s math test, a few calculus questions could be mixed in. If the student successfully answers these, they would get an “A” in the “Intro College Math” section of their report card, but if they don’t know the answer—as expected—this will not reduce their Grade 4 letter grade.

Conclusion:

There are probably other “gamification” techniques that could be used in grade reporting to motivate students more effectively, but this would be a good start.

PROS: Since humans apparently love to see progression occur / numbers go up (as evidenced by the popularity of many mobile games and of the entire RPG genre), this “progression system based” report card would definitely be a hit.

CONS: Extremely overbearing parents would probably berate their 2nd-graders for not getting the masters-degree-level science questions right, thus making the tiger-parent experience even more stressful.