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?
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.
This system even works on irregular containers, such as the bag in Figure 2.
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 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.
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.”
“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 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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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 /!”
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 ice-hockey rink (cold climates only)
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.
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.)
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.
With the advent of “the Internet of things” (or “IoT” if you prefer), it has become possible to put electronic gizmos in nearly any consumer product. If you ever wanted to add a speaker, some LED lights, or a GPS tracker into a some random household object, now’s the time!
Strangely, despite the existence of IoT-enabled clothing (“wearables”), the IoT has not yet addressed a common garment-configuration question: “is the zipper on my jeans still unzipped?” (Figure 1).
Yet the technology already exists to alert the wearer of this fashion faux pas!
The solution here is incredibly simple: to detect if the zipper is unzipped, just conduct electricity through it. If the circuit is closed, then electricity will be conducted and we know that the zipper is zipped (Figure 2).
This information can then be transmitted to the user’s smartphone, which will make an informed decision to potentially send the wearer the text message “FYI: your fly is unzipped.”
This is one of the most obvious applications for “IoT wearables.” How is this not yet a product!
PROS: Brings a long-overdue technological update to an ancient leg-covering technology.
CONS: Malfunctions may result in a particularly unpleasant electrocution. This is the price of progress.
In early 2022, the word-guessing game “Wordle” had a moment in the spotlight as an Internet sensation.
In this game, a player attempts to guess a 5-letter word in as few tries as possible. Each guess provides a user with a certain amount of information as to how close they are to the actual correct answer (in a fashion similar to the game “Mastermind”).
A number of alternative word-based versions were quickly created, but—strangely—no general-purpose game for guessing X words of length Y letters has yet been made available.
Until now! A very user-unfriendly command-line Python script is now available for playing a clone version of Wordle with as many words and letters as you like (Figure 1).
One important new feature is that we can also specify, say, “–letters=12” to guess twelve-letter words (Figure 3) instead of five-letter words.
Or perhaps instead of twelve-letter words, we want twelve words:
But the real bonus here is that you can increase the numbers as much as you want (Fig. 5)—at least, until you run out of words in your dictionary.
Most musical instruments are capable of playing more than one note a time. This is typically referred to as a “chord.”
Unfortunately, the list of chords is relatively small and well-understood (Fig 1): once music students learn them, they won’t have any more aspirational chord-learning goals, and will surely become demoralized.
We can take inspiration from Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, which begins with “…I’ve heard there was a secret chord…” . Unfortunately, the specific secret chord in question is never revealed, so we’ll have to just create our own new set of “secret” chords.
These will use letters beyond just A, B, C, D, E, F, and G; perhaps even including Greek letters, Chinese characters, ancient Sumerian cuneiform.
There’s only one problem: what would these new esoteric chords actually be? For one possibility, see Figure 2.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear how additional “forbidden chords” could be created for instruments like the piano, where the internal workings are somewhat isolated from the user, and thus resistant to the shenanigans described in Figure 2.
By motivating music students with the tantalizing secret of forbidden knowledge, we can improve national musical education!
PROS: Motivates music students. If the “strum in two locations” system in Figure 2 is adopted, musical efficiency (notes per seconds) is increased by 100%, which should give our nation a competitive edge in the creative arts.
CONS: None! This is entirely practical, and should be adopted immediately.
In the modern era, people generally have at multiple wirelessly-enabled Internet-accessible cameras and microphones (Figure 1) within arm’s reach for 90% of their waking hours.
The proliferation of cameras in the home can pose a privacy issue: the only thing preventing a camera and microphone from turning on is software, which means that it’s fundamentally impossible to guarantee that a camera can’t turn on at any moment.
Many cameras have a tiny “on” light (Figure 2), but this is usually not especially noticeable.
The most obvious solution is also the most widespread: physically cover the camera! As long as there’s no electronic mechanism to open the cover, software bugs (and malware) can’t uncover the camera. The user has to physically reach over to it every time they want it on.
The most popular solutions:
▪ Yellow sticky note. Works fine, but annoying to add/remove. Can fall off laptop screens.
▪ A more “professional” plastic camera-blocking slider that sticks (with adhesive) to the laptop screen. This works extremely well, but the user must remember to close the slider.
We can enhance this plastic camera-cover slider by making it spring-loaded, so that it will automatically close after a certain amount of time (Figure 3).
Now the user can’t forget to re-cover their camera after using it for a meeting!
A fancier version of this idea be integrated into the laptop itself by the manufactorer: a physical cover that could be closed by software (perhaps after a configurable time delay) but could only be opened by a user-controlled physical mechanism.
PROS: This is a practical extension to the plastic “camera cover slider” device.
CONS: It’s a bit unclear how sturdy the aftermarket circular cover would be in practice: it might be too large and awkward to survive daily use on a laptop.
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