A new twist on the “lose money on razors, make money on the blade refills” plan. You won’t believe this zero-inventory plan for selling electricity at an outrageous markup!

Background:

Some products, like printers, razors, and coffee machines, rely on a recurring purchase of input materials (ink, razor blades, and coffee, respectively).

Frequently, the company that sells the durable part of this system will sell it at cost (or even below!), with the hope of profiting from a hefty markup on the consumables (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: Inkjet printer ink and single-use coffee pods are frequently “locked” by the manufacturer, so a consumer can’t comparison shop: other brands simply won’t work!

The Issue:

But the company has a problem: if Inkjet Printer Co. sells a printer at a loss, but sells exorbitantly priced ink, some other company might step in and sell ink at a more reasonable price.

The solution to this problem, of course, is “Digital Rights Management“—lock the printer in such a way that it can ONLY use branded ink from the same company (Figure 1).

Proposal:

Strangely, this “lock the product ” system has not spread to every aspect of consumer products. (For example, there is no such thing as a stove that only works with same-branded pots and pans.)

In order to create an inescapable “locked” product, we will try to brand-lock the most basic element of modern machinery: electricity!

By creating a new line of products that only work with a new type of plug, a company can sell “branded” electricity to consumers.

In order to make the concept more palatable, let’s call this system “Green Electricity” (Figure 2). Note: it isn’t ecologically friendly in any way, it’s just the color green.

Fig. 2: A consumer who wants to use this “Green Electricity”-branded computer will need to also get a five-pronged “green electricity” plug installed in their house.

This would allow a company to sell heavily-marked-up electricity to consumers. 

In order to prevent a user from simply buying an outlet adapter or transformer (and thereby using regular electricity in a Green Electricity product), the Green Electricity wiring could have an unusually-modulated voltage and amperage.

Perhaps the exact parameters of this electrical current, and the dimensions of the plug, could be trademarked in order to prevent competitors from selling adapters. (And trademarks, unlike patents and copyrights, can be renewed forever.)

Fig. 3: Sure, the “regular” plug (top) might have cheaper electricity, but it won’t be compatible with the great products that require Green Electricity.

Conclusion:

This is the ultimate in selling consumable items: not only does it lock consumers into a particular resource that they have to keep buying, but the company can also just purchase electricity from the regular power company and re-sell it at a markup! No inventory or shipping required.

PROS: Brings new innovations in product development to the world.

CONS: People might get annoyed if they end up with six or seven different (and incompatible) outlets in their kitchen, but I’m sure they’ll get used to it.

A possibly-legal way to officially be paid for advertising purposes while serving in a public office! Run it by a lawyer first, though.

Background:

Most countries have laws that discourage public officials from being financially compensated to use their official powers to benefit particular companies. (This is usually called “bribery.”)

For example, a state governor probably couldn’t declare July 5 to be “Official BestUsedAutoDeals.com Appreciation Day, Use Referral Code AUTO4U.

However—maybe there’s a “one weird trick”-style loophole that would allow public officials to be paid to promote a business without officially promoting it!

Proposal:

Two elements of this are crucial:

  • In some countries (e.g. United States) it’s legal for a person to legally change their name to essentially any text, no matter how bizarre.
  • Public officials often sign documents that go out to thousands of people: for example, a governor’s signature might be found on a college diploma and a treasurer’s signature might be found on a piece of paper currency (Figure 1).
Fig. 1: The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury’s signature can be found in the highlighted area.

So here’s the question: could a government official—let’s say the Secretary of the Treasury—be paid to change their own name to, for example, “www-ultimate-snake-products-dot-com”?

Normally, this would just seem like a really strange marketing plan, but in this case, that text would also appear on millions of banknotes / diplomas / passports / etc., as shown in Figure 2.

(Essentially, this is a roundabout way of selling ad space on official documents.)


Fig. 2: If we suppose that the Secretary of the Treasury from Figure 1 (William E. Simon) had changed his name to “BestUsedAutosDotCom REFERRAL CODE USA#1,” could his official signature have looked like this? Perhaps!

Conclusion:

This situation is probably weird enough that there isn’t any law that explicitly prohibits it in a clear fashion. This provides a spectacular opportunity for any aspiring politician looking to make a mark on history!

PROS: Opens the possibility of a person receiving a presidential pardon signed by “Mega Value Soups & Noodles: Your Trusted Brand!

CONS: Apparently the legal and political systems are not (yet) operated by a giant robot or Star Trek computer, so it’s possible that there’s some kind of catch-all anti-bribery law that could be applied to this situation.

Want to get a written message out to everyone? Just redefine your country’s borders to make cartographers do your bidding!

Background:

Many national and provincial borders are defined in highly arbitrary fashions that have no underlying geographical rationale: these often appear as straight lines on a map, frequently passing through uninhabitable wastelands.

Fig. 1: Some borders have a basis in a geographical feature (e.g. a river, a mountain range), while others are defined solely based on text in some legal document (e.g. “a straight line from X to Y”).

For this proposal, we’ll discuss borders that satisfy these criteria:

  • Border region is uninhabited.
  • Border region has no strategic value.
  • Border region has no resource-extraction potential.

Proposal:

For hundreds of years, countries have had a perfect opportunity to define a border in such a way as to write whatever text they desire (Figure 2)—yet somehow this has never been implemented in practice!

Fig. 2: Let’s imagine that one country was a big fan of their national sports team, the Wildcats, and wanted to make sure that every other country was subjected to their team’s inspirational cheer. If the country changed its actual borders to write out this text, then the text would appear in every map, atlas, and globe, across the world!

Although large-scale geology-based drawings do exist, like the Nazca Lines in Peru, these have the property of actually existing in physical reality, and not just being abstract map borders.

Fig. 3: Here, we see how this border-drawing situation might appear on a cell phone map. The promotional phrase “Go Wildcats” would be inescapable to anyone within a hundred miles of the border!

This kind of border-writing is the ultimate billboard—visible to everyone, everywhere, night and day.

Conclusion:

Almost any straight border that runs through a desert (e.g. Figure 4) would be a great “blank canvas” for border writing.

Fig. 4: Most countries have some borders that would be suitable for writing. Here are some candidate areas on the US–Mexico border. (Map from OpenStreetMap.)

PROS: By selling “border text” to the highest bidder, governments could reduce the tax bills for their own citizenry. Or, they could antagonize their foes by changing internal borders (e.g., two provinces within one country) to spell out taunting messages!

CONS: Inevitably, as soon as one nation cedes a tiny bit of land to spell, for example “USA #1!,” a valuable mineral deposit will be found on that ceded land. This might cause international conflict.

Bring cosmetic microtransactions to every aspect of society. Soon, you’ll be able to pay thousands of dollars for a fancier driver’s license or passport!

Background:

In the mid-2010s, video game companies discovered that they could often make more money by giving away games for free (!) and selling cosmetic “extras” than they would have made by just selling the games.

These cosmetic extras are generally fairly basic (e.g. “your character is now dressed as a vampire” or “your sword is now a candy cane”), but they can sell for upwards of $20. The game Fortnite managed to bring in ~4–5 billion dollars annually using this sales model.

The crucial element of a cosmetic microtransaction is that it confers no functional benefit beyond the visual change. (And, as an added bonus, it usually costs almost nothing for the seller.)

The Issue:

The idea of “cosmetic microtransactions” occasionally extends beyond the realm of video gaming. Here are some real-world examples that can inspire us:

  • Custom automobile license plates: In most U.S. states, a user can pay extra to 1) specify the numbers/letters in the plate (e.g. “COOLCAR”) and 2) pick from a set of pre-determined “premium” plate backgrounds (e.g. a picture of the state bird).
  • Car paint colors: Certain models of car may have “premium” paint jobs: for example, in 2019, the Tesla Model 3 could be purchased in “Pearl White” for an additional $1,500.

Proposal:

Let’s bring these cosmetic microtransactions to other realms of commerce!

  • Driver’s license: A driver could pay a small fee to get a license with a fancier look to it (Figure 1).
Fig. 1: For a mere $15,000, this driver was able to upgrade his boring “regular” driver’s license to the regal “GOLD RANK” license.
  • Computer user interface themes: A user could have the “base” operating system with a boring “plain” look to it (Figure 2A), or a “premium” OS with a fancier appearance (Figure 2B). For more inspiration about user interface changes, check out the incredible variety of WinAmp (audio player) themes from the late 1990s.
Fig. 2A: A simplified example of a no-frills “regular” window in a desktop operating system (specifically, from 2022’s macOS 12). Compare to the premium version in Figure 2B.
Fig. 2B: After spending $149.99 for the special “Ultimate El Dorado Treasure of The Lost City” edition windows, the user will be treated to the premium appearance depicted above. The added shine and sparkles will reinforce the deluxe experience.

For people who spend hours each day at a computer, it’s definitely worth it to upgrade the operating system appearance to provide a psychologically-comforting “premium” experience.

Conclusion:

By bringing these ”nickel-and-dime-ing” microtransactions to all aspects of daily life, we’ll improve the experience of the citizenry. Is this the apex of technological civilization?

PROS: Might allow things besides video games to be provided for free. For example, perhaps income taxes will eventually become optional, if there are enough “whales” paying $1,000,000 for the privilege of filing their tax return on a piece of gold foil!

CONS: None! It’s the perfect plan.

Repurpose this common office supply to prevent casual snacking on junk food. Binder clips to the rescue!

The Issue:

After a person purchases a gigantic (yet economical) tub of snacks, they’re probably doomed to devour them in short order.

But what if there were a way to harness human laziness to prevent devouring of junk food?

Proposal:

Behold, the solution! Just put an excessive number of binder clips on the container that you’re trying to protect* (Fig. 1), and you’ll find that your desire to chomp on thousands of calories of chocolate chip cookies is kept in check by your similar desire to not have to undo (and redo) a bunch of binder clips.

* From yourself.

Fig. 1: This 1.44 lb. container of chocolate cookies is protected by four large binder clips.

This system even works on irregular containers, such as the bag in Figure 2.

Fig. 2: Works on bags, too!

Conclusion:

This system has been tested in human trials, and has been shown to decrease cookie consumption rate by approximately 50%. Not bad!

PROS: Improves public health for only the cost of a few binder clips!

CONS: Unfortunately, incompatible with most ice cream containers. Definitely does not work on ice cream sandwiches, either.

A new style of financial advice: showcase only the stocks that were enormous losers and led to financial catastrophe!

Background:

A huge number of books, blogs, and web sites have been written to supply investment advice to the common people.

Almost all of these books recommend strategies that, up to that point, have been successful. Strangely, very few of them recommend strategies that have lead to catastrophic financial failure, even if the strategies behind these investments are conceptually sound.

For example:

  • A reasonable sounding theory: “Energy will always be required in the modern economy. Thus, it isn’t a bad idea to have some money tied up in this reliable sector.”

Yet these never follow up with:

Or in ~2001:

  • “A new segment of computing is clearly in small wireless devices: perhaps a fusion of the cell phone and notebook computer: some sort of ‘smart’ phone.”

Yet these, too, never follow up with:

  • “So a savvy investor would choose the company at the cutting-edge of this market: Palm, Inc.” 

The Issue:

The problem with this style of financial advice is that almost all of the examples are just survivorship bias: they cherry-pick the successes (“Apple computer, it was so obviously going to be a success!”) and ignore all of the companies that didn’t survive (“Wang Laboratories: it’s been around since 1951, it definitely has the expertise to be the next big thing in computing!”).

This is similar to writing an investment guide about betting on a roulette table: if a spin comes up red, you might expect dozens of financial bloggers and “influencer” analysts to write long treatises explaining why, in this particular situation, clearly it was time for “red” to shine.

Proposal:

In order to balance out these examples of sensible-sounding-yet-unsupported financial advice, we need a blog that offers superficially reasonable advice that, when tested with real data, always resulted in disaster. The real world is full of useful examples

  • The pitch: Early 2000s: “CPUs are crucial to modern products, but they’re held back by legacy engineering requirements. A new line of re-engineered chips (by a major company) that can make a clean break with the past will unlock vast computing potential!
  • The reality: the Intel “Itanium” chip never catches on, and is a financial flop.
  • The pitch: Mid-2010s: “Microsoft is a huge tech company that can integrate their OS with a new phone ecosystem, for the ultimate in synergy. If they entered the mobile phone market, they’d be almost guaranteed to succeed (Figure 1).”
  • The reality: the Windows Phone mobile OS never manages to crack the market, which remains split between iOS and Android.

Crucially, both of these products failed on their own merits, and weren’t squeezed out by some “evil” competitor or by some kind of internal malfeasance.

Fig. 1: Windows Phone was considered by many to be an almost guaranteed bet: it had the backing of a huge company that had succeeded in similar spaces before, it could leverage phone-PC integration, and it had (seemingly) an unlimited budget. (Fortunately for investors, there was no way to buy stock specifically in “Windows Phone.”)

Market projections are also a popular way of showing that some random new technology (e.g. the personal jetpack, the Segway, some specific cryptocurrency, etc…) is going to get adopted.

The formula is: 1) combine things that have ALREADY succeeded with the new thing that you HOPE will succeed, and then 2) plot them on the same graph (Figure 2).

Fig. 2: This style of chart works for anything: just take your favorite new technology and show how it’s only been around for (say) 2 years, but it’s already got 2% marketshare. Now add a bunch of other technologies that took a long time to get going (the automobile, the airplane, phonetic writing, the camera, etc…), and you’ll discover that your new technology can’t fail—look at all the other unrelated things that didn’t fail! Here, we see that the Zeppelin is due for a resurgence.

Conclusion:

It’s a bit surprising that this book / blog doesn’t already exist!

PROS: Would be easy to find examples in history: just search for all the stocks that became worthless, and then do some research on the circumstances on each eventually-worthless company.

CONS: It might be hard to monetize this concept: normally, financial advice can attempt to persuade you that it’s worth your time (and money), because you’ll be financially better off according to some bewildering charts. But if the advice entirely showcases failures, people might be more hesitant to pay for a subscription.

Programmers, rejoice! Date and time formatting will be greatly simplified with this one weird alphabetical trick borrowed from ancient Mycenaean Greece!

Background:

When specifying a time, some positions may have either one or two digits (e.g. “1 PM” vs “11 PM”), but other positions always have a leading zero, no matter what (e.g. “1:01” and “1:11” both have three digits).

Proposal:

The inconsistency in digits is unnecessary and leads to weird sorting behavior. For example, if we sort the times from 11 AM to 2 PM alphabetically, we end up with this: “1 PM, 11 AM, 12 PM, 2 PM.” Outrageous!

Let’s fix it by using new symbols to give a unique single-character glyph to 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, an 12 o’clock. If we use existing keyboard characters like “A,” “U,” and “=,” we retain both the ability to easily type these characters, and they will sort in ascending “alphabetical” order (the ASCII default sort order is numbers → letters → symbols), and they can be represented in a traditional 7-segment LED display (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: We chose “A,” “U,” and “=“ to represent “10,” “11,” and “12,” because these symbols can be displayed in a traditional 7-segment LED display, as shown in green above.

If we want to get really comprehensive in fixing date representations, we might want to also replace every day of the month with its own symbol. Figure 2 proposes using the long-defunct Linear B script, which has no living defenders and is thus vulnerable to our repurposing.

Fig. 2: There turn out to be approximately 200 of these Linear B symbols, so we can pick and choose our favorites. If we select them based on how computers already sort these (if there even is a default already), then they’ll even sort properly with no additional work! These glyphs are already in Unicode, so no additional work is there, either.

So in the end, we’ll have a comprehensive time-and-date rework where months, days, and hours can always be represented by a single digit (Figure 3). This will replace the current unpredictable mix of 2-digit and 1-digit values.

Fig. 3: In this example, we’re using the Linear B symbols to represent 24-hour time as well (so we don’t need AM / PM anymore, either). Look how concise the updated times and dates are!

Conclusion:

This should save ink and make life easier for programmers, who can now always rely on times fitting into the format YYYY–M–D H:MM:SS (at least for years between 9999 B.C. and 9999 A.D.).

PROS: Should make alarm clocks cheaper to manufacture, since they’ll only need three digits for HOUR:MINUTES rather than four.

CONS: The Linear B symbols aren’t supported by most fonts. Sometimes, they’ll be replaced by a “missing character” symbol, so we might end up with things like “The graduation is on /9!” or “Please report for your court appearance on /!”

Extraplanetary calendars: “12 months per year” is an Earth-specific concept that will need adjustment in the space-age future!

Background:

By the year 2000, visionary futurists have estimated that over half the human population will live off-world, on another planet or in an orbital space colony.

The Issue:

Unfortunately, other planets generally have inconveniently not-matching-Earth orbital periods and day lengths. Thus, the calendar months will need to be adjusted in order for our intrepid miners on Mars know when to celebrate The Fourth of July or Cinco de Mayo (and possibly other month-and-day-specific holidays).

Proposal:

Various planets will require various adjustments to their calendars.

Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Earth: this is the most popular planet for humans. Day length: 1 day. Year length: 1 year. The year is divided into 12 months of ~30 days (Figure 1).
Fig. 1: Earth has a bunch of messed-up month names in English, like “October” (“The Eighth Month”) for the 10th month, but we’ve learned to deal with it.
  • Mercury: this is a weird one—the day length is longer than the orbital period. That means that the calendar only needs one “month” with a single day on it! Very economical. Downsides: your “word a day” calendar will actually only have one entry on it, so knowledge of esoteric vocabulary on this planet may be extremely limited.
  • Venus: this is another surprising one—apparently it spins around in 243 Earth days, but orbits the sun in 224 Earth days, so once again, we only need a single one-day month. Fortunately, we can just re-use the Mercury calendar here—this should save on logistics, since the Mercury / Venus calendar can be printed in a single batch (Figure 2) before being shipped by rocket to both planets.
Fig. 2: The entire calendar is just a single day. Very convenient!
  • Mars: this is the first situation where we’ll have to add months. A very reasonable 24 months (of 30-Mars-days-per-month) cover the whole orbit, so we’ll only need 12 new month names (Figure 3).
Fig. 3: We’ll need to come up with some new month names for Mars. Historically, some months were renamed to honor political figures—e.g. Julius Caesar (“July”) and Augustus Casear (“August”)—so perhaps this tradition will be continued by future Mars colonists who will, perhaps, name their months after Arnold Schwarzenegger (e.g. “Schwarzeneggtober”) and Clint Eastwood.

Unfortunately, the more distant planets have more inconvenient calendar requirements. Let’s look at Neptune as a representative outer planet:

  • Neptune: with 16 Earth hours per day and 165 Earth years per orbit, we’ll end up with 86,999 Neptune days per Neptune year. Thus, we’ll need 2900 months (86,999 / 30), as shown in Figure 4.
Fig. 4: Neptune’s calendar, with 2900 months, will (at one page per month) be more than twice as thick as the original publication of War and Peace. Citizens of Neptune will be unlikely to have much affinity for Fourth of July fireworks, since this date will only occur at most once in a single century.

Conclusion:

When moving to another planet, it’s important to consider the calendar situation. Finally, this has been addressed!

PROS: Practical consideration of planetary month names may jumpstart space exploration, leading to the idyllic rockets-and-robots future promised by 1960s pulp science fiction paperback book covers.

CONS: This dreadful calendar situation may discourage space exploration: planetary explorers will have to give up not only their friends and family, but also any hope of ever seeing more than one additional New Year’s, May Day, Cinco de Mayo, or Fourth of July.

Repurpose that outdoor swimming pool as a trampoline during the winter! Get exercise and make more efficient use of yard space.

The Issue:

In some climates, outdoor swimming pools (Fig. 1) are kept filled with water year-round, but are covered during the colder months. These covered-up pools waste a lot of outdoor real-estate that could be put to alternative use.

Fig. 1: In the summer, this swimming pool is great. But when it’s covered up for the winter, it takes up a lot of space while providing no value!

Proposal:

The pool will need to be covered anyway, so we can take advantage of this space by creating a pool cover that also serves some secondary function.

Several possible options come to mind:

  • Mini-golf course
  • Mini ice-hockey rink (cold climates only)
  • Trampoline

The “trampoline pool cover” (Fig. 2) could be the best option, since trampolining is a great way to warm up during cold winter months, and additionally supports medical professionals (by generating exotic injuries for the emergency room) and teaches children about the fragility of life.

Fig. 2: The trampoline (blue) and its frame (black) are part of this newly-improved pool cover (red). Note that the trampoline frame is supported by solid ground (unless it moves slightly, in which case it will catastrophically tumble into the pool).

It might seem difficult to support a mini-golf course or ice hockey rink on flimy pool cover, but this might actually be feasible. Since water is—counterintuitively—not substantially compressible, we could fill the pool completely to the brim and then rely on the water as a “solid” support. (We’d probably also need to plug up any inlets and drains, so a downside of this method is that water can’t be circulated while the pool is providing structural support.)

Conclusion:

This is a good plan that should be of great interest to many suburbanites in temperate climates.

PROS: Makes use of otherwise-wasted yard space during the cold months. Encourages outdoor exercise.

CONS: Adding the hazards of a swimming pool to the hazards of a trampoline might not be a winning combination.