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Too lazy to be an informed voter? No problem—team up with a non-citizen who is interested in the democratic process! It’s a win-win situation!

Background:

The democratic process depends on at least some fraction of voters making an informed decision.

The issue:

However, many people find politics uninteresting (Figure 1), and vote semi-randomly and/or for the most candidate with the most camera-friendly smile.

This is not an ideal way to choose a country’s leaders.

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Fig. 1: “What??? They want me to vote either yes or no? Sheesh, who has time for that. If only a cruel tyrant would rule over the land, crushing all dissent and freeing me from these decisions!”

Proposal:

This one is simple: a web site (or app) simply matches up an uninterested / uninformed voter with a motivated-but-ineligible-for-voting individual (e.g. a non-citizen or some really motivated high-school civics student).

Now, the highly motivated individual can suggest candidates and referendum choices for the apathetic voter (perhaps by filling out a sample ballot beforehand).

(The eligible voter will still actually have to either go to the polls or fill out a vote-by-mail form, so this is still slightly more work than doing nothing at all.)

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Fig. 2: The benefits are obvious: the uninterested voter doesn’t have to slog through the ballot, and the motivated non-voter gets to be part of the democratic process! In theory, better-informed voters should also choose more competent civic leaders as well.

 

PROS: May save democracy.

CONS: If every single voter becomes so apathetic that they outsource their vote, it is clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with the country’s political situation.

Re-experience your youth in an amazingly annoying fashion with a “scaled up furniture” business featuring gigantic chairs and tables!

Background:

Almost everything in the world is designed for people of average adult size.

As a result, most everyday objects (furniture, stairs, door handles, etc.) are a totally inconvenient size for children or the extremely short.

This is somewhat surprising, since everyone spent many years facing these problems as a small child.

But it was so long ago that no one really remembers! (This is also a classic example of the market failing to address the needs of a demographic with zero purchasing power.)

Proposal:

Here, we propose re-furnishing a shopping mall so that every object is sized to give you (as an adult) the approximate impression of scale that a three- or four-year old would have.

In other words, we approximately double the size of everything in the mall in all three dimensions (e.g. a 3-foot high table is now 6 feet high, and doors are 15+ feet tall).

The building would also need to have an exceptionally high ceiling in order to accommodate the larger furniture (see Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: All the furniture is scaled up proportionately. This chair is now basically unusable by the average-height mall patron (left).

Additionally, if this “everything is enormous” business were to sell food or beverages, those should also be scaled up (Figure 2).

 

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Fig. 2: In the spirit of scaling up everything, a “regular sized” coffee would be served in an enormous gallon-sized mug (Figure 2). A hamburger scaled up in this way would contain approximately 6,000 calories.

Conclusion:

Since there are so many malls that have gone out of business due to the convenience of Internet shopping [1], there should be plenty of abandoned real-estate that can be repurposed for this plan.

PROS: Provides useful perspective to product designers. Also allows people to re-live their childhood in the most inconvenient way possible, thus saving them from unwarranted nostalgia.

CONS: The potential for breaking bones in this out-of-scale environment is extremely high. Not everything scales up in a strictly linear fashion (e.g. a fall off a 6-foot-high table would be more than twice as injury-causing as a fall off a three-foot-high table).

[1] (Some people dispute this, and suggest that another factor could have caused it, such as haunting by ghosts.)

Sleep-tracker smartwatches should be able to help you by recapping things you missed while you’re sleeping and/or pausing the streaming video that you’re snoozing through!

Background:

Some smartwatches now have a sleep tracking feature (Fig 1): the watch is able to figure out when you fall asleep and record how long you’ve slept.

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Fig. 1: This watch is able to record the length of your slumber, but it doesn’t do anything with this information except displaying it.

The issue:

It’s easy to fall asleep while watching streaming video or listening to a podcast.

But sleeping while a podcast plays may result in your podcast app marking 10+ episodes as “played” even though you snoozed through them. To fix things, you’ll have to figure out exactly where you left off (or just give up on those episodes entirely).

With a TV show, you might wake up to a plot-twisting spoiler. Horrifying!

Proposal:

With a sleep-tracking smartwatch, the watch could, upon detecting that you’re asleep, do one of two things:

1. Immediately pause the podcast / video, or fade it out over time.

2. Continue playing, but specially mark this region of time as “you were asleep, but the video was still playing.” This situation is shown in Figure 2.

 

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Fig. 2: In this scenario, the user fell asleep at 4:33 PM, but the app kept playing the podcast until 5:05 AM. A huge button marked “AUTO-REWIND” allows the watch-wearer to automatically return to the podcast material that they slept through.

This feature could also be useful for college students, who are famous for sleeping through classes at all hours of the day. A sample scenario is shown in Figure 3, below.

 

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Fig. 3: The student who was wearing this watch fell asleep 38 minutes into their class. Fortunately, the watch started recording the lecture as soon as the student fell asleep, so the student is able to review it by pushing the “REPLAY “NAP” LECTURE AUDIO” button.

Conclusion:

This auto-pause feature could be implemented in a manner similar to the way in which a phone already automatically pauses video / music when a phone call is received.

 

PROS: By pausing streaming video, this saves valuable Internet bandwidth that would otherwise be streamed to your closed eyelids.

CONS: Students may end up with even more disastrous sleep schedules if they know they can rely on this lecture-replay feature.

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

Background:

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?

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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).

 

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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!

Conclusion:

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!

Background:

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.

Proposal:

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).

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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?

Conclusion:

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.

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.

 

 

Never get sued again, thanks to a new type of wallpaper that can convey over-broad warnings to your company patrons or houseguests!

Background:

Liability law is extremely complicated and counterintuitive.

However, one common factor is that it appears to generally be beneficial—or legally required—for the owner of a potential hazard to warn others about that hazard (e.g. the omnipresent California Prop 65 warnings: “Warning: This location contains chemicals that are known to cause cancer”).

The issue:

Unfortunately, these Prop 65 warning signs have two issues:

  1. They only cover a limited subset of dangerous situations
  2. The warnings are inapplicable to normal residential hazards (e.g. fire, electrocution hazard).

Proposal:

We can bring the potential liability reduction of the Prop 65 warning to all homeowners (not just business owners) with a new type of wallpaper that lists every conceivable hazard on it (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: This wallpaper attempts to list all potential dangers. Additional hazards (e.g. shark attack, freezing hazard, cross-traffic-does-not-stop, etc.) may be added by writing them in using a regular permanent marker.

Consider the following situation:

  1. A houseguest is bitten by 99 snakes (that were disguising themselves as a carpet)
  2. Then the houseguest sues the owner of the house for the cost of their medical expenses.

Now, at the civil trial, the homeowner can point to a photo of their wallpaper and say “Your Honor, it says right here that there is a ‘snake possibility,’ so my guest should have been well aware of this potential danger.” See Figure 2 for an example of what this photo might show.

Whether or not that would hold any legal weight is a question for the great legal minds of our time, of course.

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Fig. 2: An example of what this wallpaper might look like in a residential home. It CLEARLY states that there is a potential snake-related hazard, among other possible dangers.

How to create the list of warnings:

You might think it would be difficult to create a comprehensive list of warnings, but this is actually the easiest part: we simply collect all civil lawsuits and list out every single thing that a lawsuit ever happened over, and then add that to the wallpaper. At 12-point font, it would be possible to easily fit millions of unique warnings on a standard wall.

PROS: May (in a theoretical world in which lawsuits are resolved by robots) help reduce legal liability AND bring high-class interior decoration to a room.

CONS: It is unclear if this legal strategy would be successful, as it is has presumably not yet been tested in court.