#94: Emoticons++

It’s all too easy to misinterpret the emotional tone of an email you are sending or have just received. Today’s invention is an attempt to alleviate this problem.

Everyone who writes email (ie soon everyone on the planet) could be prompted by their computer, at random times throughout the course of say one month, to answer this question: “How are you feeling, right now?”


If the answer is different from those previously given, a webcam would capture your facial expression (perhaps also asking you to exaggerate your look or to use a face morphing tool for the same purpose).

Your emotional state is correlated with eg your most recent typing and mouse movement behaviour (See eg this research). These data would enable the system to learn something about your mindset on future occasions and automatically inject stored images which mirror it into the current missive.

(Another technique would be to exploit the fact that certain fonts are good at conveying particular moods. Comic Sans, for example is so unwaveringly jolly it drives large numbers of people crazy. I’d suggest that the local font could be set for each sentence, based on the writer’s detected state of mind. It might even be possible to create new fonts specifically tuned to different, as yet unrepresented feelings: ’emotifonts’).

When composing, you can set the frequency with which images are inserted, as thumbnails, into your message (ie every paragraph or after every string of exclamation marks -or when you resort to CAPITALS). As well as performing a spellcheck before sending, it would become necessary to do a moodcheck of the embedded images too.

Naturally, techie types who regard html email as a heinous aberration, will miss out on this, but they tend not to care too much about whom they might offend anyway ; )

#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).


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.

#77: Aerial wind farm

Wind energy is obviously valuable but limited by the fact that not everywhere with a pressing need to operate the toaster has sufficient wind speed to justify spending $20M on a windfarm (Doubling wind speed creates an eight-fold increase in potential power output).

Windspeed basically increases with altitude, so that jet steams, at about five miles up, can be moving at 300 MPH.


Today’s invention: Imagine piggybacking a redundant airliner (as in the early days of space shuttle testing), stripped of non-essential components, to an altitude of five miles or so.

The airliner could be equipped with a very large set of turbine blades (which would fold out once the machine had been released from the piggyback plane and tethered to the earth using draglines, like a large kite). Inside, there would be a gearbox and an ac generator. These days we are actively planning carbon-nanotube space elevators, so much of this technology is not actually rocket science).

The result would be massively efficient, renewable energy output (via electric cables down a tether cable)…also there would be few complaints about unsightly turbines, or the impact on birdlife. And if the wind speed drops off? Well, you could run the fans and generator backwards for a while on electricity previously harvested to big batteries on the ground.

I just discovered this…hope they aren’t thinking of applying for a patent!

#68: Toilet turbulator

I’ve had to undertake a lot of practical research into the phenomenon of blocked drains, lately…we are talking toilets here actually, I’m afraid. I’ve been astonished by how poorly a sink plunger performed, even when combined with gallons of chemical unblocker. There is no way to form the required seal, so I resorted to a different tactic.

Ideally, I’d use a high-pressure hose, but if the drain isn’t clear within about 10 seconds, the entire house fills with effluent: -nasty. Turbulent vortices, created by a flapping motion under the water surface, are the answer, I’ve discovered. These can be made energetic enough to erode and dislodge the most stubborn of blockages.


Today’s invention is an attempt to achieve the intense flapping required without having to use your hand. Instead, a variant on this trash picker device is suggested, with a flipper in place of the ‘beak’ and the whole thing encased in some kind of ezy-clene rubber sleeve. I still haven’t thought up a way to make this flexible enough to go around a U bend, but fortunately, water is sufficiently incompressible for pressure waves to be transmitted over longish distances -making this usually unnecessary.

#67: Subjective interface tool

When I was in my early 20s, I suddenly discovered that most people didn’t have the same internal models as I had.

Here is a page from a computer-based diary (written in HyperTalk) which I designed to mirror how I think about the year… how I actually see time in my head.


Each week is envisaged as an upwards-slanting ellipse which moves from Monday (lower left) to Friday (upper right).

Successive weeks form a vertical helix with New Year at the top. This helix of the year then loops over and flows downwards towards Summer.

My 3-D view of time does make using a conventional, rectilinear calendar a major challenge, but it occurs to me that it provides a much more direct, ‘zoomable’ model of time than the conventional grid layout (which never works for me, since I can’t stand that need to look over the page to see what’s happening next month -come to think of it, surely it would be better, on computer-based calendars, to scroll time so that eg on the 2nd of the month you get a window displaying the 15th of last month to the 16th of this month…how many meetings get missed because people didn’t see them coming?)

It turns out that I have several of these visual models: the kinds of thing that NLP and ‘timeline therapy’ rely on. Today’s invention is therefore to equip people with a simple, personal design tool which allows them to create computer based interfaces, reflecting their subjective mental models, to the processes of eg

  • travelling in the city where they live -see this example
  • all the activities within their company
  • their relationships to other people (could produce a few surprises).

It would probably be something like a version of FrontPage (that actually worked) but with lots of javascript widgets available as standard to accommodate the necessary interactivity and personalisation. (I’ve just come across this interesting development).

#62: Recycled thespians

It’s fairly common these says when making a fim to shoot extra scenes, using existing sets, in order to be able to create an instant sequel. This is obviously much less costly than setting up a whole new project but it does require the backers to believe that there is commercial demand for a sequel, even before release of the main product.

Today’s invention is a variant on this theme that occurred to me whilst watching the charming and brilliantly cast Bandits.

Instead of just reusing sets, why not recycle the actors? They are after all, a major cost to any production. My suggestion would be to present the actors the challenge of reshooting each scene with just their characters swapped. Newman plays Sundance and vice versa. (A surprising number of movies apparently had their original cast exchanged in this way before shooting even began).

Creating an alternative version of certain movies, especially those reliant on the dynamic between two major characters, has a certain extra piquancy and could be achieved for a tiny fraction of the price of a remake.

I’d suggest not releasing the alternative version until the first edition has had time to become established. Can you imagine the consumer demand if it were suddenly announced that there was a forthcoming release of ‘More Like it Hot’ or ‘Louise and Thelma’?

#58: Un-brella

Where would the poor old Patent Office be without the umbrella?

I’ve been thinking about how best to upgrade the humble brolly. Here are some suggestions.


Replace all that folding framework over one’s head with a set of equispaced, flexible petals attached to the top of the shaft. The petals rotate like a propeller, fast enough to stop raindrops getting through to you. Flexible petals don’t poke people’s eyes out and merely brush by obstacles (like those little desk fans).

The whole shebang can be driven by a cordless drill motor (aerofoil-section petals might then help support the weight).

If you want to get really funky (my recommendation), then drive it using a toothed belt attached to one’s foot. The belt would engage with a ratchet on a flywheel in the handle of the brolly only as your foot moves downwards; slipping over the ratchet freely as your foot rises again.

All this gyroscopic rotation would help stabilise the unbrella against gusts of wind but might make cornering complicated.

If you must, the petals can be decorated with slogans which are only visible when spinning.

When the rain stops, the motor can be disconnected and the limp petals easily wrapped around the shaft using an elastic band (Patent number: US 1000299278387467837687282827128918 “Linearly Extensible Continuous Ring-shaped Securing Device or System”).

#52: Market mathematics

Benford’s Law states that the digits making up numbers in large datasets occur with frequencies which follow a simple pattern and can therefore be predicted. This only applies if the numbers are unrestricted in terms of the range of their values (which certainly applies to stocks…think Wall Street Crash). Numbers beginning with a 1, for example, will occur about 30% of the time.

Today’s idea is to use this phenomenon to get a small edge in stock trading. Specifically, if you are trying to predict movements in an Index as a whole.


If all the stock prices in a given market are analysed, the frequency of numbers with different first (ie most significant) digits can be graphed (in purple). These columns can be expected to follow Benford’s law (blue). Here we see that values with 1 as first digit can be expected to be just about to decrease in frequency, whilst those with first digit 8 are can be expected expected to become more common.

A simple sum of the positive and negative deviations from the Benford distribution will indicate whether the index is set to rise or fall.

Applying this technique on eg a daily basis, for a long time, seems to me to provide an edge, which might well be significant compared to the various sources of noise in the system. It’s also likely however to result in large short-term losses which may make the scheme unworkable for anyone other than a very rich gambling addict (As Richard Branson says “How do you become a millionaire? Become a Billionaire and start an airline”).

#36: Agricultural advertising

Farmers are always in search of new ways to make some extra cash. If there’s no chance of grabbing a big grant for not farming their fields or of selling up to an airport developer, our ‘Guardians of the Countryside’ are often only too keen to line the roadside with containers bearing rustic messages like www.preownedbmw.co.uk or www.needaholidaynow.com.

As today’s invention, I suggest an alternative.


The countryside is already full of underexploited four-legged billboards: ie cows and sheep. Get some waterproof ink in an inkjet device and spray each member of the herd/flock as they enter the byre/pen with a multicoloured, high resolution advert.

#31: Ruminant roomba?

Global warming, we are told, is a) real and b) bad.

As a resident of a cold country, I might quibble about whether being able to drive around without fear of skidding into stationary objects is actually that much of a problem. Leaving that aside, it turns out that (otherwise blameless) cows contribute significantly to the warming process.

Ruminant livestock (including cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo) produce about 80 million metric tons of methane per year…which is a hell of a lot. Farmers can currently buy a digester system which transforms collected cow dung into bottled methane for use as a fuel. The bad news (aside from having to drive muck about all day) is that each system costs in the region of $200,000 which, even for farmers, is a bit of a stretch. Without getting too technical, most of the methane comes in the form of belch anyway, which is harder to harvest.

Today’s invention is a light, sealed, translucent, arched canopy; big enough to comfortably cover a herd of cattle. This would be equipped with an efficient fan to collect the warm methane near the top. It would form a loose seal on the grass surface, using some form of crude skirt and It might also make sense to have this canopy move slowly and randomly within the field.

This would obviously provide a measure of weather protection too, assuming a limited number of stampedes.