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Category: Education

Stop being confused and confounded by currency figures in old movies and books! This new “inflation adjustment” movie-and-book currency calculator will solve all of your narrative befuddlement.

Background:

In many movies and books, a financial amount is discussed at some point. For example, a character may remark that a heist “could be worth 100,000 florins” or “the estate had fallen on hard times, and now generated only 576 denarii annually.”

The issue:

Is the amount discussed above a lot of money? Or is it a paltry sum? Who knows!

This can be both narratively confusing: e.g. in a situation where an outlaw spends a week scheming to pull off a stagecoach robbery and then gets a $500 share in the ill-gotten goods. Are we, the readers, supposed to think that the outlaw has done well for himself, or is that amount equivalent to a week of work sweeping floors in the saloon?

Proposal:

Movies should have the option to pop up an inflation-adjusted and currency-adjusted figure (Figure 1) for any amounts of money mentioned by the characters.

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Fig. 1: If a bunch of characters in the Old West are murdering each other over a treasure, it would be nice for the viewer to understand the value of the treasure: is it actually worth something, or are the characters murdering each other over something valueless? Narratively, it could work either way, but it would be useful to know what the intended interpretation is!

Similarly, e-books could easily have an option to display the current modern inflation-and-currency-adjusted value (Figure 2) of any mentioned quantities.

 

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Fig. 2: Books that are set hundreds of years in the past often discuss currencies that no longer exist. This can be difficult for a modern reader: is a “ryō” a lot of money? What is a “ducat,” anyway? Here, the obsolete foreign currencies are converted to a modern equivalent.

Conclusion:

This would also provide an excuse for book and movie publishers to periodically update their works. “Oh, you have the 2014 copy of Price & Prejudice? We’ve updated it with the new 2020 inflation figures—you should really re-order 100 new copies for the school library. Isn’t it important that students have access to quality educational materials?”

PROS: Helps the reader properly interpret a narrative with more complete information.

CONS: Actually performing the adjustment may be difficult. For example, if a high-quality Viking canoe is valued at “ten steel hammers and ten yards of cloth,” should we naively translate that to the modern cost of such things—e.g. approximately $140 in 2020 dollars?

Take off your top hat and monocle, and gain empathy for people who earn less than you, using this not-actually-available browser plugin!

Background:

The same amount of money can represent vastly different things to different people.

For a minimum-wage earner (in 2019), $10,000 represents roughly 65% of a year’s total salary.

But for the very top level of executives at one of the top 350 U.S. firms, that number represents less than a day’s salary.

The issue:

Thus, it can be very difficult for people to understand how much a product actually costs from someone else’s perspective.

For example, someone who doesn’t have a ton of money might say: “Who would be so crazy as to pay $14 for a box of cereal? Or $9 for an organic head of lettuce?”

  • To the minimum-wage earner, the box of cereal represents ~2 hours of work.
  • But to a cardiac surgeon earning $400,000 a year, the same box of cereal represents 5 minutes of earnings.
  • The cereal box would have to cost $378 to make the same dent in the cardiologist’s overall income!

On the opposite side, someone who earns a lot of money might have thought: “Who would be deterred by a $400 speeding ticket? That’s barely even a slap on the wrist.”

  • However, for the minimum-wage employee, a $400 ticket represents over SIXTY hours of earnings!
  • The ticket would need to be for almost $11,000 for the cardiologist to feel the same wallet pain. (A few countries levy fines in a scaled-by-income fashion to avoid this scenario: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day-fine )

Proposal:

A browser plugin can take the following pieces of information:

  • Your actual salary, as a baseline.
  • A “target” salary that you are trying to understand

Then, prices on all web sites are scaled naively: so a person earning $50,000 who wants to “remember” how it felt to earn $5,000 a year working part-time would configure the plugin to simply multiply all prices by 10x.

Likewise, if you wanted to better understand the lifestyle of a rich oligarch, you could enter “$100,000,000” for your annual income. For someone with that sort of annual income, a $500,000 exotic sports car is the same fraction of total income as a $250 purchase is to someone earning $50,000 a year.

 

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Fig. 1: Setting up the plugin requires configuring exactly two options: your actual salary (in red above) and the target “simulated” salary (in blue above).

 

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Fig. 2: Here, the plugin is configured to multiply prices by approximately 6: this simulates the difference between a $120,000 earner and a $20,000 earner. This box of chocolates was actually listed for $19.34, but with the scaled up prices, it displays as “$118.54-ish”: that’s what it “feels like” to the $20,000 earner as compared to the $120,000 earner.

PROS: Allows a person to get a more intuitive feel of what a particular income level feels like. May increase human empathy, who knows!

CONS: Since this plugin edits dollar values on EVERY single web page, it may lead to you to filing wildly incorrect tax returns if you forget to disable it when filing your taxes online.

P.S. This was made as an actual Chrome plugin, so those are real screenshots, but it isn’t actually distributed anywhere.

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Fig. S1: This supplementary figure shows the configuration screen for this plugin, with a basic description of its intended purpose.

 

 

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Fig. S2: This supplementary figure shows the original UI mockup.

 

 

If you’re starting a new gang, read this important set of guidelines before you select your gang colors!

Background:

Some gangs are known for wearing specific colors.

The issue:

It occasionally happens that a non-gang-affiliated passerby’s clothing happens to match local gang colors by chance, which can lead to various unfortunate encounters.

Proposal:

Although it is unlikely that any existing gang will change its colors, if creating a new gang, a new “gang color style guide” is proposed:

  • Instead of adopting a single solid color (e.g. red, blue, green), a gang instead selects the distinctive patterning of a local type of snake, as illustrated in Figure 1.

This has at least two benefits:

  1. Due to the complex snake patterning, it is unlikely that a non-gang-affiliated individual would coincidentally happen to be wearing valid gang colors.
  2. These snake patterns would serve a useful educational purpose for the community at large. For example, people who were continually exposed to The Coral Snake Gang‘s colors would soon become experts in identifying the coloration of the venomous coral snake. This knowledge could save lives and be a useful fact for pub trivia.
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Fig. 1: These proposed gang colors are the patterns of two commonly-confused snakes. (Left: the non-venomous milk snake. Right: the venomous coral snake.)

Conclusion:

This would be a useful way of reinforcing the knowledge conveyed in the rhyme in Figure 2. Now, every time a person sees a member of “The Milk Snake Gang,” they will also reinforce their familiarity with the coloration of the milk snake.

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Fig. 2: These rhymes from Wikipedia allegedly help remember which snakes are venomous: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coral_snake . Since it seems prudent to not be bitten by a snake in either the venomous or the non-venomous situation, a more generally applicable rhyme (suggested to me by a fellow bad/worst idea aficionado) would be “If it’s a snake / do not partake.”

PROS: Teaches valuable snake facts, improves public safety.

CONS: May be difficult to find clothing in the required colors/patterns.

 

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.

Stay informed about current events and local news with this incredible printing tip that resurrects the printed newspaper, with a twist: the paper is replaced by your own skin. Fortunately for you, no printing press is involved.

The issue:

Using your phone to read the news has three major downsides:

  1. You have to hold your phone. You could easily drop it!
  2. It uses battery life, which might be in short supply depending on how often you can charge your phone.
  3. A barrage of linked “clickbait” articles (with interesting photos) attempt to lure you away from reading any serious journalism.

Proposal:

Here, we propose to re-introduce newspaper kiosks, but with a twist: instead of providing a newspaper, the kiosk simply prints the day’s news onto your arm, as mocked up in Figure 1.

Then, you can easily read it at your leisure, without being distracted by phone messages, annoying ads, and low-battery indicators.

 

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Fig. 1: Just put your arm on the surface above, and the printing apparatus will write the day’s news on it in less than 15 seconds. Convenient! Since the system is entirely automated, enough money is saved on wages to afford a full-time 1930s-era newsboy to stand next to it and shout “Extra, Extra!”

The result of this printing apparatus is shown in Figure 2.

 

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Fig. 2: News of the day, as written on one (or both) arms.

 

The mockup looks quite successful so far, but there is a caveat that will restrict its market size, shown in figure 3.

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Fig. 3: Variations in skin tone pose a challenge to the printing mechanism. Most inks can only darken the material they print on, which works for skin tones A and B, but results in unreadable text on dark skin tone C. A similar phenomenon is also observed in face-detection algorithms.

Fortunately, there is practical enhancement that will improve the experience for everyone (Figure 4).

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Fig. 4: Luminous ink (non-radioactive) is the solution: not only does this work well for both light and dark skin, but it also lets you read the news in the dark, as shown above. In fact, there’s no way to turn it off, so you can’t even avoid reading the news when it is dark out. Not that you’d want to anyway, of course!

Conclusion:

Perhaps this would be a way to resurrect print journalism.

PROS: Provides great way to stay up-to-date on current events without being distracted by ads and clickbait articles. This will lead to an informed electorate and strong democracy.

CONS: Of limited utility in ares where short-sleeved shirts are not worn. Ideal test market would be a tropical location with a casual dress code.

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).

Stop impulsively using your cell phone, thanks to this one amazing deterrent that is also GUARANTEED to make you way smarter and well-educated! Guarantee void.

Background:

People are often glued to their cell phones at all times, thanks primarily to the ease of finding an amusing distraction on the Internet.

The issue:

There have been various proposals to mitigate the scourge of “phone addiction,” for example, setting your phone screen to black-and-white / grayscale in order to reduce its appeal (https://www.google.com/search?q=set+phone+to+black+and+white).

However, no proposal currently tackles the problem by making the phone-unlock process a mentally-taxing exercise.

Proposal:

In order to unlock your phone, you have to solve some sort of vaguely challenging puzzle, or perhaps learn a new fact about the world.

For example, to unlock your phone:

  • You must win or tie a game of Tic-Tac-Toe (Figure 1). Your AI opponent could just make moves randomly, so that it isn’t always a tie.
  • You must win a game of Go against the phone. This could take substantially longer than the Tic-Tac-Toe example; perhaps decades or more.

 

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Fig. 1: Perhaps you would need to win some sort of strategy game in order to unlock your phone. Other candidates include chess, checkers, and other popular board games. Since the computer will almost always be better than a player at these games, it could start with a handicap (e.g. no queen in chess).

An alternative approach would be to attempt to educate the phone user in some way (Figures 2 and 3).

 

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Fig. 2: High school or college students who are studying for standardized tests could replace their unlock screen with a practice test question. This phone’s owner will undoubtedly become very familiar with the format of the “analogies” section used in some standardized tests.

 

 

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Fig. 3: You’d definitely read a lot more classic literature if you HAD to in order to unlock your phone. Even War and Peace (shown here) would fly by in no time!

Alternative proposal that would help you maintain social connections:

Instead of requiring you to solve a puzzle, the phone could require you to send a message to a friend you haven’t talked to in a while, or call someone on their birthday. This synergizes well with the amazing not-yet-real app Friend Neglectr.

PROS: Combats phone addition AND enriches your life at the same time.

CONS: People would probably try to unlock their phones while driving, and having to read an entire chapter from “War and Peace” on a 5-inch screen would probably greatly increase the risk of a catastrophic car accident.