Archive for: May 2008

21st May 2008

#522: Whengine

Filed under: Possible inventions - 21 May 2008

I was searching the other day for some online information -a task I perform perhaps every hour of my working life, on average. What I got back was a series of results representing articles from 2005, 2006, 2002 etc…and then I realised there is no easy way, using any of the familiar engines, to order results by date of uploading (other than for those pages which define themselves as ‘news’).

I know that there’s no way to require that pages or their content items be tagged with this information, but I reckon it would be hugely useful to index even a subset of pages based on upload date. Those pages that contain the information, would make themselves more accessible via this tool and so the practice of date-tagging content would spread.

Today’s invention is a search engine enhancement whose robots would actively search upload date information and allow it to be used to order their results.

19th May 2008

“Inventors’ Inbox”

Filed under: About inventing - 19 May 2008

I’m a member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and a Chartered Engineer. My views on membership are controversial, in that I believe there is a strong case to be made for strictly limiting access to use of the title Engineer, in order to boost fee rates…exactly what the sawbones and ambulance chasers have done forever (and teachers, for example, have failed to do).

It therefore isn’t surprising that lawyers and medics are highly paid, whilst Engineers generally aren’t (or at least not for practising Engineering). We need many fewer people at the highest level within the profession, rather than recruiting truckloads of mediocre students to do uncreative, low-level degrees -and then allowing anyone, including car mechanics and drain diggers, to use the title anyway.

It’s time for Engineers to stop thinking of themselves as employees and encourage them to be leaders.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

ETB report outlines crisis in UK engineering
Unemployment amongst engineering and technology graduates is persistently higher than the average for other subjects, reveals a report by the Engineering and Technology Board.

The report sums up recent trends in the science and engineering workforce. It warns that engineering graduates are regularly lost to city careers, women are still not being attracted to SET studies and that international visitors outnumber British students on postgraduate engineering courses. The crisis is particularly acute in electronic and electrical engineering, where UK-based enrolment has more than halved since the early part of the decade.

The board also warns that unless the UK is unlikely to reach it target of a 2.5 per cent R&D spend as part of the Lisbon strategy unless more public and private investment are attracted and productivity is increased.

Anyway, Mark Sheahan and I write this column for the IET Magazine. Sometimes he manages to turn my imaginings into practical products.

#521: Drywipes

Filed under: Possible inventions - 19 May 2008

Using a public lavatory is always fraught with danger and discomfort. One of the most irritating aspects is that of the paper towel dispenser (There are still lots of public loos which lack the more sensible air driers).

Today’s invention attempts to make towel use less annoying. The aspect of performance which causes me particular grief is that when I need to dry my hands, they always seem to be wet…Have you tried grabbing a paper towel with a wet hand? The result is always the same, a fragment of moist cellulose mush in one hand and a bunch of towels which can’t then be extracted from the dispenser.

So instead, I propose that, at the end of the production line, the usual bundles of towels be riffled, like a book, whilst being sprayed on the bottom edge only with waterproofing agent (eg Nikwax).

When later grabbed by damp hands, these would stay intact long enough for whole towels to be extricated.

#520: Shoulderblower

Filed under: Whimsical inventions - 19 May 2008

The only embarrassing problem, to which I can confess here anyway, is dandruff. Bathing my head frequently in benzenoic shampoo does actually limit the difficulty but it can’t be good for one, longterm.

What to do? None of this matters if you insist on wearing sand coloured clothing of course -in that case, dandruff may the least of your problems.

Today’s invention is a small fan which is located inside the collar of one’s jacket. This drives air into an envelope-shaped manifold on each shoulder which is perforated on the upper surface. The jacket itself would be unlined in the shoulder region, to allow a freer passage of air through the material.

The fan would be activated when the jacket is first put on and run (quietly) until it is removed. The airflow upwards through the material would be just enough to deflect any errant flakes of epidermis away from the shoulders before landing and forming a drift.

16th May 2008

#519: Tracers

Filed under: Possible inventions - 16 May 2008

I wish we lived in a world where firearms could be dispensed with. Sadly, even the most civilised of societies rely on weapons (albeit tacitly) for their continuance.

Today’s invention attempts to ensure that any bullets that get fired do so more accurately and that every one is linked to the shell casing (as well as the barrel) from which it emerged.

In addition to using rifling in the barrel of a firearm to stabilise it in flight, new bullets would have a projectile with a thin-walled cylindrical tail section, extending back into the body of the shell casing and in contact with it. The casing itself would be rifled internally; effectively adding barrel length to the weapon in question as well as somewhat increased spin/stability. As the cylindrical tail moves out of the casing (locked in the weapon), it spins, perhaps 20% earlier than usual, due to the casing rifling with which it engages.

Rifling marks on the bullet would match the grooves on the casing interior (these could be given a very slight variation in geometry, unique to a given casing and would be hard to tamper with). Even if the gun is removed from a crimescene, people engaged in illegal activity will find it difficult to gather all their expended casings.

15th May 2008

Knowledge vs “IP”

Filed under: About inventing - 15 May 2008

There is an article on this subject here which highlights the absurdity that is IP. It’s better expressed, via examples, than I could ever manage:

“Fundamentally, the stuff we call “intellectual property” is just knowledge – ideas, words, tunes, blueprints, identifiers, secrets, databases. This stuff is similar to property in some ways: it can be valuable, and sometimes you need toinvest a lot of money and labour into its development to realise that value.

But it is also dissimilar from property in equally important ways. Most of all, it is not inherently “exclusive”. If you trespass on my flat, I can throw you out (exclude you from my home). If you steal my car, I can take it back (exclude you from my car). But once you know my song, once you read my book, once you see my movie, it leaves my control. Short of a round of electroconvulsive therapy, I can’t get you to un-know the sentences you’ve just read here.”

In this context, I think it may be appropriate to include the text of an email received by Richard Stallman, last year:

” Your site is an interesting one. Some of the ideas seem useful; some of them are amusing, and would qualify as chindogu. (Look that up on

However, it’s really very bad to use the term “intellectual property” to describe what this is about. That term doesn’t have a coherent meaning; it is an overgeneralization that covers up confusion and makes it appear meaningful. Whoever the term “intellectual property” is typically either confused or trying to confuse others.

One of your posts, a few items down from the top, was about the patent system. It speaks of “a share of the IP”. Do you mean “a share of any income from patent licenses”? If so, would you please correct it to say that, and thus avoid the term “IP”?
See for more explanation of this problem.
Worse, it seems to me that by demanding secrecy to create monopoly, the patent system is seriously damaging innovation.

I agree. I just made a link to which explains just how bad this is.

The article used to have a different URL which used the term “intellectual property”, but I convinced the author to change it so as to avoid that term. He changed it today đŸ˜‰ . “

And here’s a view from Arthur C Clarke, just before his recent death:

“I’m often asked why I didn’t try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, ‘A patent is really a license to be sued.’ “

#518: Two-for-one

Filed under: Feasible inventions - 15 May 2008

If you have some religious objection to ordering home deliveries via the internet then you may even think that the shopping trolley is a good design. In fact, for those still compelled to do the Ben Hur thing around the local store, the problems include steering eccentricity, injuries to people’s fingers, cost of making, stacking and keeping the damn things, back injuries due to bending down inside them etc., etc.

Today’s invention addresses an additional issue: manoeuvrability. When your trolley is filling up, it becomes a massive weight which must be rotated about a vertical axis not far from the shopper’s body. When corners need to be taken, even at snail’s pace, this imposes huge loads on people’s arms and backs.

So, my suggestion is to replace every large trolley with two small ones…shops frequently have to supply two sizes anyway to deal with this very issue. The difference is that, for the majority of shoppers who need to buy a truckload at each visit, I’d supply a bridge mechanism so that two small carts can be joined temporarily together. This would allow the shopper to walk between them, steering using the usual handle on the front one, but with a very much lower moment of inertia for an equivalent amount of shopping…ie much easier turns (about nine times less effort, in fact).

The bridge component would attach to top edge of one side of the two small trollies (as shown) and would be customer-owned so that when the shopping is done, it goes home too, leaving the trollies to nest neatly in the carpark as usual.

#517: Wristware

Filed under: Feasible inventions - 15 May 2008

Buying and wearing an expensive watch can be a pain. Today’s invention is for people who don’t want to have to take great care of an expensive timepiece, but who still want some of the character which these products embody (and without buying a counterfeit lookalike).

For many years it’s been possible to get rather unexciting radio-controlled watches. Imagine one of these which receives via radio an image of the face of a very expensive timepiece, physically located safely on a shelf somewhere.

This need only be updated with each new position of the second hand, reducing the bandwidth requirement. You might also choose to receive and play the actual ticking of the particular watch in question.

This would allow people to ‘wear’ a new, highly-expensive watch each day -without the cost of buying and the care required of an actual owner. A wrist-based receiver could also have a back face and display the inner workings of a watch equipped with a rear window.

Those with a keen sense of irony could opt for the Vista desktop clock, since it’s the best thing about that whole operating system.

#516: Viewalk

Filed under: Possible inventions - 15 May 2008

Photographs of landscapes don’t really enthuse me much. I’m generally much happier with scenery which contains a few wind turbines…I suspect that’s because, apart from being an elegant, quiet design, they also add some sense of scale (and distance). Even the most beautiful view means little to me without that.

Today’s invention therefore is a way to add this to even the most featureless of photographs.

Mountain walkers frequently carry GPS units which record in great detail the path taken on a digital map (as well as a check on the altitude, as indicated by the map’s contours). A walker could take his photographs (using a camera which similarly recorded position, compass direction and elevation/declination). Later, each of these shots could have the path taken superimposed on it (imagine the translucent digital image, correctly oriented, being looked through -at a CAD-like model of the terrain on which the route appears eg as a red line. Such a line could easily be projected onto the ‘screen’ of the image itself).

This would then allow injection of digital images of eg a person -scaled appropriately for different locations along the route. For added realism, it would even be possible to inject a synthetic shadow each time, knowing the time of day at which the image was taken.

Rise of the Creative Class

Filed under: About inventing - 15 May 2008

I was reading some brochure material from the Glasgow School of Art recently (superbly creative people, but I think they need some serious organisation). Anyway, I came across this inspiring quote from a Professor Richard Florida

Creativity is now the decisive source of competitive advantage. In virtually every industry, from autombiles to fashion, food products and information technology itself, the winners in the long run are those who can create and keep creating…creativity has come to be the most highly prized commodity in our economy.

I think he’s right although, sadly, many of our organisations and businesses don’t think in the long term. Those that do, tend to prosper.

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