#90: Recursive photocopying

As a technique for assessing the accumulation of photocopying errors, I propose that a given test image, containing a suitable range of greylevels and spatial frequencies, be photocopied (using a standard tv ‘testcard’ would be an obvious approach). That copy should be itself be copied. Let the process continue for a fixed number of times (I’ve typically used 100 such cycles).

The final image will show up regions in which the device has been introducing noise of various sorts, and thus provide a measure of imperfection in the system. In particular, try this with eg a name badge bearing your photograph. After about 30 recursive copies, you will find yourself transformed into Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four.

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Even if it is hard to make absolute measurements of image quality this way, it’s possible to use it to understand something about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different copiers -a kind of crude modulation transfer function test.

#89: Laptop antinoise

As the owner of a laptop which had begun to sound like a jetplane at takeoff, the issue of quietening such machinery has been at the forefront of my mind (or at least my auditory cortex).

The various sources of online Ubuntu help were scoured (thanks, K) for insights into how reduce the fanspeeds without frying the chips. This was pretty successful but it left me wondering what I had to do to get absolute silence.

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Today’s invention is to supply each laptop (or desktop box, come to that) with an antinoise generator. Given that the fans tend to have a very small number of operational speeds, it should be possible to tune an antinoise system to cancel each of these quite effectively…so that even if you happen to find yourself solving 3-D acoustic wave equations, the machine can stay silent and still not melt.

No need for aftermarket hardware of course -simply record some fan noise samples, invert the amplitude (you might get away with a simple phase shift of 180 degrees, if you have a pitch-perfect machine) and play it back through the speakers.

Probably a good idea to run a synchronisation program once at startup, and only periodically thereafter, to account for drift and changes of fan speed (running a big dsp program continuously in the background might rather defeat the purpose of the exercise).

#88: Phone-up tone-up

I try pretty hard never to print anything onto paper. You can’t do a keyword search on your filing cabinet; the whole paper thing is so last-century. As for the much touted roll-up, electronic plastic paper, I don’t buy it -at least not ’til it’s as cheap as the ordinary, pulpy cellulose stuff (It had also better be biodegradable or we’ll be up to our armpits in digital chip papers).

Anyway, when I’m forced to liaise with the outside world by means of ‘printing things out,’ the toner cartridge in my never-say-die HP printer usually requires to be extracted, hammered and intricately reinserted within the bowels of the machine. This seems to have the desired effect of redistributing the toner particles more evenly.

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Today’s invention is a device which can be bolted onto each new toner cartridge, in the form of a dirt-cheap mobile phone (where would I be without these devices?). When my computer decides that’s it’s going to print something, it automatically makes a call to the phone (in silent, vibrate mode), which gives the toner enough of a jolt to make the resulting document legible.

This will then allow me to spend a happy hour or two, wrestling to remove the fragments of the document from the jaws of the disgruntled printer. Which is probably why laser printers cost as much as they do.

#87: Image search display

There’s been some small controversy lately about whether or not image search results should be displayed with data automatically attached, or only when the image is rolled over.

I’m not satisfied by either approach, since you still have to scan each image sequentially across and down the page to find anything vaguely resembling what you may be looking for -unless you are looking for e.g. ‘anything yellow,’ in which case you should perhaps have your internet licence revoked.

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People forget that they aren’t able to perceive the entire visual field simultaneously at high resolution, because they usually have the freedom to make eye and head movements of the type that conventional image search demands -think about scanning a team photograph for the face of your favourite nephew: you can only do it by a serial scan process, not all at once.

Today’s invention makes use of this fact about perception, together with another one. We can identify images easily in around 150 ms. I therefore suggest that image search results be displayed one at a time, every 200 ms -as in a slide show. When you spot an image that is of interest, simply click on it to stop the process for a more detailed look.

This would enable reliable inspection of 300 images per minute: much faster than can be achieved when including the additional time taken to scan between them arrayed on a page. It would also allow images to appear at greater resolution than in their present, postage-stamp size.

(In fact, the rate of inspection could probably be increased further, without actually losing much recognition capability).

#86: Chasebots

Today’s invention is inspired by the creativity of the people at Funky Moves Ltd, who are working to reduce childhood obesity by making exercise interesting.

It occurred to me that, as a fat 10 year old, I was always reluctant to take much part in the chasing games which engulfed the school playground at lunchtime. I therefore suggest the creation of a small team of moving robots (such as I crudely simulate using Starlogo).

Those children who wanted to take part could each be equipped with an RFID tag. They would then be chased by the team of collaborating Chasebots (they needn’t look menacing, perhaps the children themselves could paint covers for them).

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When a child’s tag came within a certain distance of a bot, the tag would register this (‘YOU HAVE BEEN TAGGED, JOHNNY B OF P4’) and invite the child to become a chaser.

Over time, the team of bots would get to know which kids were easier to catch and adapt their strategy accordingly to help optimise the fun/exercise for individuals…staying in (slow) pursuit of a Bunter or flocking to corner a Billy Whizz. They might even sense when a child was not running as hard as usual and ask if they were ok.

#85: Articipation

Students of art come in two flavours. Those who learn about the works of artists and write essays explaining their significance for the psychosexual politicisation of the protocapitalist demographic -and those who learn to actually do the art part.

My small theory of art is that it’s for communicating an emotional state between people in a more direct way than saying “You know that Spanish Civil War thing, it really makes me pretty angry.” Good art therefore successfully communicates what the artist was feeling.

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Anyway, today’s invention is for those who would like to participate in the creation of an artwork. Imagine a famous artist working at a digital easel. He or she is using a special mouse which glides over a drafting tablet supporting the artist’s wrist. on top of the mouse is a small ‘inkwell’ device which houses the drawing pen and which allows it to move both axially and at angles to the tablet.

As the artist draws, his movements and tool selections are stored digitally. These data can be communicated electronically to a similar mouse, either in real-time or years later. Each similar mouse/pen combination will have motors on board to allow it to follow exactly the nuanced movements of the expert. In this way, students can literally begin to feel something of the process of creating the work. In years to come, they will be able to experience this in connection with generations of new Old Masters.

Is it too crazy to suggest that this represents some kind of consciousness sharing tool -even more direct than the resulting picture could be? Also, who owns all that copyright ? ; )

#84: In vitro veritas?

Even though I don’t get to drink expensive wine very often, it bugs me that half a bottle left overnight just doesn’t taste as good (no amount of pumps or seals of duck-billed valves makes much difference). No doubt some wine-snob chemists could explain that it’s to do with the air removing certain volatile components in a particular sequence.

So today’s invention will scandalise them: it’s wine in a bag, in a bottle. Boxed wine stays fresh for longer, so why not insert a smaller than average wine bag into each bottle of quality wine before it is filled and ‘laid down’ ? No air contact with the wine, even when the bag collapses years later during dinner (moments before I do).

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For those of us who aren’t compelled to quaff a whole bottle once it’s open, this could be a way to enjoy pricier wines…certainly the additional cost of the inserted bag would be negligible.

A seriously sneakier thing to do would be to allow the wine to mature and be transported across the globe in individual bags but then to carefully feed those wine-filled bags into bottles of local origin…thus saving the horrendous cost of transporting all that glass (might require bags shaped like tapeworms, but that’s a marketing issue).

Sacrilege, I hear them yelling? Only a few years ago, people were baulking at the idea of plastic corks; now even they are gaining viticultural credibility.

#83: Creativity test

I’m obsessed by the phenomenon I call visual metaphor: when one object can be seen as being ‘like’ some other to which it is otherwise unrelated. Consider the piece of toast which my three year old daughter suddenly declared to be a cow, below. (I’m also pretty sure that similar things exist in other modalities…aural metaphors are probably what are commonly known as puns).

This seems to be the ability to generalise to a very large extent: something which highly analytical types have trouble with, but at which artistic or imaginative people excel (although they, in turn, generally seem to have problems with minimal generalisation…ie tasks requiring step-by-step, small scale logical deduction).

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Why might the ability to generalise to this absurd extent have been evolutionarily valuable? Being able to see that a snake resembles a cigar, resembles a penis, resembles a sportscar, resembles a fountain pen is not obviously that useful.

This ability may however have allowed our distant ancestors to make some kind of guesses about the behaviour of a new phenomenon which appeared (when they had almost no other information) based on very loose similarity between it and something already known about. Rather than standing around looking completely confused when the first steam engine appeared, some Native Americans dubbed it an ‘iron horse’ and reacted accordingly.

This ability nowadays may help invention to occur, in the sense that you can mentally swap properties between two objects recognised as being only very distantly similar eg
A cigar:

  • you light one end
  • you draw smoke through it
  • it comes in a metal cannister

and a fountain pen:

  • it splits in two
  • it is located in the pocket by a clip
  • you make marks with it.

Now, swap some properties:

  • you might have a pen with a light at one end?
  • maybe you could make marks using an airborne flow of carbon particles, like a photcopier?
  • maybe you could supply cigars in a metal cannister that also allowed you to write with it?
  • perhaps cigars should come equipped with an attachment to locate them in a shirt pocket?
  • they could sport a device which prevents them being lit? etc

Anyway, today’s invention is a test by which the ability of people to spot such analogies can be measured and used as some kind of a creativity index. Simply show them a range of images which may have multiple interpretations and count the number of alternatives with which they come up.

#82: Cordite lite

For those of us who live in countries where bearing firearms is considered important, today’s invention is an attempt to limit the damage that gun proliferation causes.

The idea is simply to put less propellant into bullets you can buy legally. When you browse for your favourite .44 magnum cartridges at Death-R-Us, you will be able to buy only bullets which look completely normal, but which have had their gunpowder or cordite propellant ‘cut’ with something more benign, like talcum powder.

This will still allow people to enjoy owning all that phallic symbolism and making a loud bang, but prevent them from drilling unnatural holes in each other. In fact, I’d suggest that the propellant be reduced so as to allow all ammo to deliver non-lethal impacts, even at arm’s length -enough for property owners to defend their houses/wives from assailants, but not enough to allow driveby’s, armed robbery, school sieges or assassination. I’m talking about delivering an amount of energy equivalent to a medium strength hammer blow, so that even determined bad guys will be keen to re-evaluate their whole approach.

Criminals will then be faced with massively increased prices for ammunition which has had to be illegally imported or made by hand (a hazardous procedure). Recreational hunters? They really ought to know better. Shooting at animals will only be a sport when the animals get to shoot back.

#81: Sliding motion measurement

Optical mice use imaging and digital processing technology to track movements with a spatial precision of about 1000 dpi.

Today’s invention is a range of new uses for this technology, based on moving some surface across a stationary, inverted mouse -or at least the optical internals thereof.

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This might enable a system, consisting of an array of such sensors, to recognise large scale hand gestures or, if embedded in a car headrest and steering wheel, it could record movements of the driver’s head and hands (as mentioned here).

The technology might be employed to record eg the number of times a particular door opened.

As a measure of audience engagement, the technology might be embedded in the seats of an auditorium or a cinema in order to record the frequency and extent to which people shift their seating positions. Imagine the dollar value of knowing exactly which ten minutes to edit out of a movie, based on the movements of its test audience.

With practice, it can even record the number of eyeblinks per second and drive an on-screen cursor by following, albeit crudely, eye movements (don’t try this at home).