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Month: May, 2020

The “NO SNACKS!” credit card is the latest premier credit card idea—you won’t believe it, but people will (probably) pay extra for a credit card that is objectively worse in every way! Look inside for an incredible dieting secret.

Background:

Part 1: Some credit cards provide special bonus features, such as a discount on certain purchases, “airline miles” that can be redeemed for plane tickets, or extended warranties on certain purchases.

Part 2: When attempting to eat healthy foods, the battle is often lost at the supermarket: it’s easy to buy a gallon of ice cream and 800 gummy worms, and obviously you’ve got to eat these things once you’ve purchased them.

Proposal:

Thus, we propose a “restricted” credit card (Figure 1) that could operate in one of two ways:

1) It prohibits certain items from being purchased (i.e. junk food is blocked at point of sale).

or

2) It adds a 100% “you are cheating on your diet” tax to these prohibited items.

1-credit-cards.png

Fig. 1: Left: a regular credit card. Right: a special restricted-use credit card that would make it easier to not buy junk food. The note on the front is intended for the cashier (“Do not allow the bearer of this card to buy snacks / junk food!”), in a manner similar to the (generally ignored) “CHECK ID!!!” message that people sometimes put on their credit cards.

 

Implementation of this process could be straightforward, as it would have a high degree of overlap with the existing “restricted items” list that is already in place for government food assistance (“food stamps” / “SNAP”), as seen in the unusually specific list of ineligible items below:

https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/eligible-food-items
Households cannot use SNAP benefits to buy:
  * Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco
  * Live animals (except shellfish, fish removed from water, and
                  animals slaughtered prior to pick-up from the store)
  * Prepared Foods fit for immediate consumption
  * Hot foods
  * [and additional items]

This restricted-use credit card would operate in a roughly similar manner, although it would presumably be unrestricted when dealing with non-food items (i.e. you could still use it to buy an umbrella or car battery).

PROS: Could help promote a healthy diet, thus increasing quality of life and reducing overall national health care expenditure.

CONS: May be difficult to sell people on the idea of “a credit card, but more expensive and less useful.”

Never get on the wrong train again (assuming your city has a functional public transit system), thanks to these new musical cues—enjoy country music and/or smooth jazz on your entire commute! Also, it’s the same songs every single day.

The issue:

In cities with extensive public transit systems, it can be easy to get on the wrong bus/train/subway or miss your stop.

Obviously, an astute transit-taker could realize their mistake by noticing the following:

  • Stop names being verbally announced
  • Stop names being indicated on a screen, even on buses.
  • In some places, different metro stations may have a distinctive jingle that plays. This “train melody” can be unique for each station.
  • And now that essentially everyone has a cell phone, a rider can also check their position with their phone’s GPS.

But we can still improve things further!

Proposal:

In order to make the “train melodies” even more informative—and make it less likely that you’ll get on the wrong train—the following system is proposed:

  • While moving, each train (or bus, subway, etc…) plays a song the entire time it is moving between stops.
  • These songs are specific to each pair of stations and direction: so there is a particular song that plays from Station A to Station B, and a different song that plays from Station B to Station A (or we could play the same music, but backwards).
  • The song durations are chosen to be the approximate amount of time that it takes the train to travel between the two stations. So a passenger has a general idea of when they’re about to arrive at the next stop, since they will notice that they’re coming to the end of the song.
  • And here is the key additional innovation: each transit line (e.g. a train line or bus route) has a different genre of music: see details in Figure 1.
1-subway-musical-themes.png

Fig. 1: Each dot in this transit map represents a station, and the four colors represent different lines (a “Green Line,” “Red Line,” etc.). Each line plays a different genre of music: e.g. the Green Line could play American country western (serving the journeys indicated by “A” and “B” above) while the Blue Line plays 1980s German industrial music (which would regale passengers on the commute indicated in “D” above). This will allow each reader to have an immediate intuitive understanding of which line they’re on.

This sort of music-genre-specific train melody also makes it extremely obvious when you’re on the wrong train at a transfer station: you might not notice that you’re on the wrong train if two lines have substantial overlap for much of their routes, but the unexpected music would make it extremely clear.

This might get complicated for bus routes: large cities have dozens (or hundreds!) of routes, so we’d have to start delving into very subtly different musical sub-genres.

PROS: May save hundreds of work hours that have been, previously, lost as a result of commuters getting on the wrong trains.

CONS: It would be very difficult to change the music selection without confusing everyone, so we would end up with a “time capsule” of musical choices from whenever this system was first implemented. It could get increasingly dated as time goes on.

Bonus Idea:

Instead of just playing random unrelated songs in a specific genre, the entire line could be calibrated to play an entire album by a specific band. This might help bring back the long-form album in a world dominated by singles, too! So maybe the “Red Line, Westbound” would also be the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” line.

 

 

 

Fix your “webcam eye contact” issues with this incredible new “swivel camera” laptop idea! Your conference calls will feature totally natural and not-at-all-unsettling eye contact from now on.

Background:

Most laptops include a built-in camera, typically located just above the top edge of the screen.

This type of camera is generally marketed as a “video chat” or “conference call” camera.

The issue:

When a person is on a video call, they tend to look at the image on the screen instead of directly at the camera. (Of course!)

So from the camera’s perspective—and the perspective of the remote video chat partner—the person using the webcam isn’t making eye contact, and is instead looking down semi-randomly.

Proposal:

We can solve the “video chat participant is not making eye contact” scenario by reducing the angle between the camera and the screen.

There are two straightforward ways to do this:

  • Solution #1: Move the laptop much farther away, so the camera and display are at nearly the same angle from the video chatter’s perspective.
  • Solution #2: Move the camera so that it is in front of the display. This is the solution we will be exploring.

Implementing Solution #1 is impractical with a laptop, since it (in most cases) needs to be relatively close to the user.

But Solution #2 is easy: we can put the camera on a swiveling arm and allow it to swing down to the middle of the screen (Figure 1).

Eye contact problems solved!

2-laptop-eye-direction.png

Fig. 1: Left: a normal laptop camera. Even though the chat participants are both making eye contact with the image on their screens, they are actually looking down from the perspective of the top-mounted camera. Right: now that the camera has been “swiveled” to the center of the screen, the chat participants are making eye contact in a natural manner.

PROS: Solves the weird eye gaze issues inherent to video chatting.

CONS: Adds a new fragile plastic part to snap off your laptop.

Bonus Part 1: A simpler solution:

  • Solution #3: The camera doesn’t actually have to move in order to have its viewpoint moved to the center of the display: the same result can be achieved with a small periscope (or fiber optic cable) that hangs on the laptop lid and redirects the camera view to the center of the screen.

One could imagine that such an aftermarket attachment could be manufactured extremely cheaply. Perhaps this is a good crowdfunding opportunity!

Bonus Part 2: Overly complicated solutions:

  • Solution #4: Create a partially-transparent laptop screen and put the camera behind it. This would probably require a new and highly specialized LED panel manufacturing process.
  • Solution #5: Edit the video feed in software, changing the user’s eyes in real time to always point directly at the screen. This is probably feasible, but it could be somewhat unsettling. (See also the related “touch up my appearance” face-smoothing feature on Zoom).

Related Idea:

See also: the laptop camera prism idea for including multiple people on a single machine on a conference call.

Stop writing dog noises as just “bark” or “woof”—use a new and complete dog alphabet to give them their proper due! Linguists love this one weird tip that will expand the linguistics job market!

Background:

Written languages have generally been optimized for the most meaningful elements of speech, so sometimes strange workarounds are required to capture certain subtleties: e.g. capital letters for YELLING, alternating capitalization for “thE spEaKer is VEry StUpid,” ellipses for a stilted-last-gasps sort of speech (“tell… them… the… killer… was…”), or the HTML-inspired “/s” for “please interpret the former sentence sarcastically.”

The issue:

Unfortunately, although the workarounds above are generally sufficient for human languages, they fail for non-human sounds: for example, a dog barking or a bird chirping.

If we want to write down bird songs or distinguish between different dog barks, our vocabulary is limited to various stereotyped sounds (e.g. “bark,” “woof,” “yip,” “growl”), as shown in Figure 1.

These words have very little relationship to the actual sounds that the animals are making, however!

 

2-dogs-with-latin-letters

Fig. 1: Latin letters do not allow the expression of more than a few types of dog barks. Outrageous!

So if we want to write down exactly a very specific dog bark, we are out of luck.

Proposal:

Out of luck until now, that is! What we need is a special dog-bark alphabet (Figure 2) that can capture both the range of dog sounds and their pitch.

1-dog-bark-alphabet-header

Fig. 2: What we need is a new set of letters specifically for representing dog sounds.

In this case, the new alphabet works as follows:

  1. It is a fully-featured alphabet, with each sound corresponding to one of the perhaps few-hundred basic dog vocalizations. As an upper bound, it’s probably reasonable to assume that we will need no more than 250 letters.

  2. The vertical position of the letters will indicate higher or lower pitch, just like musical notes on a staff.

Figure 3 shows an example of a hypothesized candidate alphabet, where the dog noises from Figure 1 have been converted into a new sound-and-pitch-based alphabet.

3-dog-alphabet
Fig. 3: This poorly-documented alphabet nevertheless conveys the basic idea that 1) vertical position is pitch and 2) that dog noises are drawn from a fixed set of symbols (e.g. the “Ѱ”-like character being used for the start of a growl).

Conclusion:

Once this is successful, it will open up new jobs for linguists in creating bird alphabets, cat alphabets, and whale alphabets.

This expanded-alphabet idea can also be applied for humans, allowing us to represent common sounds that still have no adequate textual approximation, like the sound of a sneeze or yawn.

PROS: Strategic addition of new dog-sound-related words could legitimize a few new and useful Scrabble words (possible candidate dog sounds: “RR,” “GR,” “RF”).

CONS: Possibly would be substantially more effort to learn than just learning 10 synonyms for “bark,” which is the current status quo.