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Category: Computers

Don’t let a modern user interface coddle you with easy-to-identify-buttons—demand a confusing and unlabeled mystery zone of wonders!


It is often recommended that pet owners buy “challenging” toys to keep their pets mentally stimulated in a world where the owners take care of all the pet’s needs.

Although an owner could simply put a dog biscuit in a bowl, it would be more exciting for the dog if the biscuit were inside a difficult-to-open ball that required the dog to work to figure it out.

The issue:

Similarly, modern automation has removed many elements of daily life that were once mentally challenging. For example, turn-by-turn directions make it theoretically possible for a person to go through life without ever learning how to read a map.

Proposed idea, which has already been implemented:

A long time ago, any user interface elements on a computer were clearly marked: a button would have a thick border around it, a link would be underlined in blue, etc.

Unfortunately, this sort of coddling may cause the human species to become helpless and incapable.

What is needed is an unforgiving type of interface that does not clearly label elements that accept user input: this will force humans to become better at remembering things.

A case study is available in Figure 1. Can you figure out what is, and is not, an interactable UI element?

Android Guess The Button 1.png

Fig. 1: In order to prevent the user’s brain from atrophying due to lack of use, Google has developed a settings screen for Android that has no visual indication of what is and is not a button. Try puzzling through it yourself: can you guess what tapping on each element would do? Answers in Figure 2. This screenshot is from Android 9, but the situation is identical in Android 10 (2019).


Android Guess The Button 2_answers.png

Fig. 2: Answers: BLUE is a normal app button and GREEN is a user-interface-related button. The two red rectangles indicate “buttons” that highlight when clicked, but do nothing otherwise (it is theoretically possible that they do something on other phones).

Google shouldn’t get all there credit here, though: the idea of making a complex swiping-puzzle-based interface was arguably pioneered by Apple. If you don’t believe it, find someone with an iPad and ask them to activate the multiple-apps-on-the-same-screen mode: you’ll be amazed by the quality and difficulty of this puzzle!


With the addition of unlabeled user interface elements and a huge array of “swipe” gestures, modern phones—both iPhones and Android phones—are adding a new category of exciting brain-challenging puzzles to everyday life.

PROS: It is theoretically possible that a user who plays these memory games with their phone will become better at crucial memorization and concentration-based tasks (although there is zero evidence of this, but it seems intuitively appealing, which is good enough here).

CONS: None!

Check your server logs for incredible deals, thanks to this new system for putting advertisements everywhere!


Some widely-used computer programs are free, and are supported exclusively as hobby projects by unpaid developers.

The issue:

Unfortunately, there is no financial mechanism to encourage further development and enhancement of these programs. Even if a hundred million people depend on a program, there is no simple way for them to support the developer.

It would be possible for software developers to figure out some sort of monetization scheme, but this requires a different skillset from software development. Plus, many programmers aren’t interested in also dealing with marketing.


Nearly all programs—both on servers and on regular desktop machines—write messages to a system log somewhere on the computer.

Developers of these un-monetized free utilities could sell out ad space in the logs: instead of a program just writing important data to the log (“USB hard drive failed to respond” or “bluetooth device unexpected disconnected”), the program could also pollute the log files with various advertisements (see Figure 1).


Fig. 1: You might say that polluting the server logs with ads was unethical, but wouldn’t it be MORE unethical to block these ads, thus robbing the content creators of their revenue?


While this is, in many ways, essentially the same idea as having ads in terminal commands (as described earlier), having ads in the logs means that they will be picked up by any monitoring utility and have a chance of being seen even if a server is not used interactively. Plus, these ads will work on servers without graphical interfaces.

Although an “on call” employee might be annoyed to get woken up at 4:00 AM by an error message from an ad, surely they wouldn’t object to it as much as long as the ad was something beneficial, like “FATAL SYSTEM ERROR: SHRIMP PLATTERS ARE 25% OFF THIS WEEK ONLY WITH CODE [SERVERSHRIMP].”

Ethics of Blocking These Ads:

One might say, “hey, I could just run ANOTHER script to purge the logs of these ads.” But really, wouldn’t that be just as unethical as blocking ads on a web site (see Figure 2), or skipping ads on a recorded program? Yes, yes it would.


Fig. 2: Left: this is what someone sees WITHOUT an ad blocker. Right: WITH an ad blocker. Don’t steal bread from developers by blocking annoying ads—it’s your duty as a consumer to endure these ads without complaining.

PROS: Helps encourage development and refinement of formerly-free-and-unencumbered software.

CONS: The ads may consume a few additional kilobytes per day in log files.

Is a university lecture or job talk going on FAR longer than it is supposed to? Emphasize punctuality with this new incredible heat-lamp-based presentation setup!

The issue:

Sometimes, a college lecture or work presentation goes far over the allotted time (Figure 1).

Frequently, the presenter doesn’t even realize that they are over time.


One simple way to prevent a presentation from going over time would be to just have the power outlets turn off at exactly the designated end-of-presentation time.

However, this hard stop could be annoying: what we really want is something that will make the presenter inherently want to wrap up their talk.


The solution is simple: just have an array of heat lamps pointed directly at the presentation podium.

When the time limit has expired, the heat lamps turn on, one at a time. At first, the podium will be just a little warm, but it will quickly become scorching and unbearable. Thus, the presenter is encouraged to conclude their talk in a timely fashion.


Fig. 2: The heat lamps above the presenter will gradually turn on when the presentation hits its time limit.


An earlier shark-related proposal turned out to be too expensive, as it required creating a new auditorium with a raised platform above a shark tank. So this is an almost-as-effective solution for the university or business on a tight budget.

This heat lamp idea could be used in conjunction with an earlier software-only plan to “burn away” slides as they are shown. This “burning” idea would synergize well with the heat lamps, too!

PROS: Does not have the same recurring maintenance costs of the shark version of this idea in the link above.

CONS: May cause a circuit breaker to trip if the building is not wired for 6000+ watts on a single circuit.

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.


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.


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.


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).


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).


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.

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


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).


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).



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.


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.


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.




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.


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.

Never forget your laptop at home (or at work!) again! The ultimate briefcase / laptop bag for the sophisticated and discerning professional!


At many companies, employees take a laptop to/from work every day.

In the past, laptops were heavy enough that it would be incredibly obvious whether a laptop was in a bag or not.

The issue:

Modern laptops are light enough that it is possible to take a laptop bag (Figure 1) to work without realizing that there is no laptop inside. This can be an annoying and time-consuming mistake.


Fig. 1: The briefcase shown here could easily weigh 5 pounds without a laptop inside, so it may not be immediately obvious whether or not a one-pound laptop is present inside or not.


Proposed here is a laptop bag that makes it unavoidably obvious that there is no laptop inside. The model shown in Figure 2 pops up a spring-powered flag whenever a laptop is not present.


Fig. 2: The high-visibility “Pack your laptop!” reminder flag (A) at left protrudes from the bag when the laptop compartment is empty. A proposed mechanism is shown at right: the flag is attached to a “laptop cradle'” (B) that is supported by several springs (C). When the laptop is placed in the bag, its weight compresses the springs and pushes down the cradle-and-flag mechanism.

The flag-based approach described above makes it incredibly obvious if a laptop is not present. It also has the advantage of being easily overridden by a user who is intentionally not packing their laptop: they can simply press down on the flag while zipping the bag’s laptop compartment.

Rejected simpler Idea:

One could imagine a laptop bag with a transparent panel that would allow visual confirmation of the presence/absence of a laptop. Although this would work (and requires no moving parts), it would still be easy to grab the bag in a rush without realizing that the laptop was missing. Additionally, it has the disadvantage of advertising the presence of a (highly-stealable) laptop to fellow commuters.

Tactile alternative to the “flag” idea:

For a briefcase, the handle could change texture when the laptop is present. For example, dozens of metal spikes could protrude from the handle until a laptop weighed down the laptop cradle, at which point the spikes would retract into the handle, like they were part of some kind of Indiana-Jones-style ancient temple trap. (This could be all done mechanically, with no need for electronics, using cables that connected the handle to the laptop cradle.)


You should crowdfund a laptop bag like this right now! If you are successful, it will prove that a market exists, and hundreds of much-cheaper knockoffs will flood the market before your initial prototypes are even done!

PROS: Never forget your laptop again!

CONS: Any object that is similar in shape to a notebook computer (e.g. an actual notebook) would cause false positives.


Stop getting hit by self-driving cars with this one fashion trick that involves putting weird labels on all your clothing! Don’t be the last one to catch on to this new fashion trend.


In a hypothetical future where self-driving cars are increasingly common, they’ll have to do a really good job of automatically distinguishing between things that require sudden braking (e.g. a person in the roadway) and things that are OK to hit (e.g. a tumbling empty cardboard box).

The issue:

This is a hard problem. When a car gets data from its various cameras (and other sensors), it needs to figure out what exactly it is that it is seeing (Figure 1).


Fig. 1: This is probably a pedestrian in the roadway, but could it also be a billboard advertisement hundreds of feet away?

Although the specific “distant-billboard-or-close-pedestrian” question in Figure 1 can be answered just by using two cameras to estimate distance, there are situations where the problem must be resolved in a more complex fashion (Figure 2).


Fig. 2: Top: the image is interpreted correctly, and the car does NOT hit the pedestrian. Bottom: the car incorrectly believes that it sees a sunflower, and collides with it at full speed. Lest you think this is totally implausible, check out some specially-crafted adversarial examples (that can turn a panda into a banana) and a method of tricking lane-following algorithms into swerving the car into oncoming traffic.


We propose to place special “this is a human” symbols on articles of clothing that a human might wear (Figure 3).

When a car sees one of these unusual QR-code-like symbols, it will instantly say “ah, sunflowers do not wear specially-marked shoes, time to hit the brakes!”

To avoid this becoming a fashion disaster, these markings would not be apparently at normal human-visible wavelengths of light, but would only be detectable by special camera equipment.

Perhaps the markings could have fluorescent ink in them, and all cars could drive around with UV lights in the front.


Fig. 3: Left: this is what the shoe looks like to a human—the markings are invisible to the naked eye. Middle: the camera can see wavelengths of light beyond human ability, and can detect these special markings (shown here as yellow checkerboards). Right: the camera sees the checkerboard, and the object-classification algorithm realizes that this shoe is likely to be attached to a human.

One common objection to many self-driving-car-related issues is “couldn’t some criminal put these markers all over the city, to trick self-driving cars?”

The answer is yes, but it would be as equally illegal as it currently is to put mannequins on a winding road (which would also confuse human drivers).


This might be redundant with an infrared camera—in most locations, a human already is obviously distinguished from the background environment just by their warm-blooded glow in the infrared spectrum.

PROS: This will definitely make me a ton of money when it is licensed by major car manufacturers. Also, would someone please apply for and pay for a patent on my behalf? Thanks!

CONS: If one of these specially-marked shoes falls onto the roadway (perhaps by falling out of someone’s messenger bag while they’re biking), do we really want every car to come to a screeching halt at the sight of a single unattached shoe?