#35: O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us -personal feedback system

Today’s invention is really just a simple extension of the idea of personal feedback on eBay.

Anyone who wanted to be involved, could equip themselves with a wifi device: effectively a badge working in peer-to-peer mode with a deliberately restricted range. When two people meet, or have any kind of interaction, either can choose to rate the various aspects of that exchange (there would be no way to block someone’s attempt to leave you feedback -once you decide to wear the badge, you would be committed to being judged by your peers). The rating would be multidimensional in order to allow people a chance to describe your behaviour, character, temperament and attitude.


The interface design would be crucial -probably consisting of twenty or so ‘sliders’ one for each dimension of the interactions. Feedback would have to be given when within the restricted wifi range, so I’d imagine that leaving a rating would have to be via some subtle tactile device hidden in a pocket or up a sleeve.

Updates to someone’s badge would would be visible to them only after the interaction, in order to minimise any conflicts but the source of the new rating would be indicated: anonymous peer review is evil.

If one person is constanty saying how nice a meeting with you was, then you might choose either to downgrade the score you give her for honesty or call her up for a date. Similarly, if lots of people seem to have the wrong idea about you, then this gives you a chance to think about the messages you are giving out and possibly modify your behaviour. Either way, maybe it offers an opportunity for decent folk to be both judged by their actions and easily identifiable.

People could thus gain a greater insight into others, if they were prepared to put their own true colours on show.

#34: 3-D models from exhaustive, 2-D data

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between photography and sculpture. In particular, I’ve been waiting for a software tool that would allow me to take, say, 20 digital photographs (what other kind is there?) and then stitch these together to create a seamless, quasi-continuous CAD-like model capable of showing the object in question from any angle.

I know that there are prototypes available in University labs all over the place -some of them may even work under the right conditions, but life’s too short.


My alternative, quick-and-dirty solution, given that I’m not that good at patience, is to take a picture of an object from almost every possible angle. No interpolation, no frame-to-frame registration difficulties, no advanced algorithms. If you need to know what that junction looks like between those four suspension members near the cylindrical brake cylinder? Simply dial up view number 2,002,003,040,105. Rather than rely on processing all those edges and splines, concentrate instead on memory (especially now that Moore’s law is running out of steam and storage costs are falling).

All these images would be stored by the location, distance and orientation of the camera as it is automatically moved around the object. It might even make sense to do what they do in astronomy and build a camera with multiple CCD sensors, arrayed perhaps in a hemispherical configuration.

What about zooming-in for extra detail? Well, I imagine that all the images would be recorded at some convenient minimum distance (determined by the acuity characteristics of the visual system, perhaps). The only zooming that could occur would then be zooming out. Alternatively, the whole process could be undertaken using handheld movie cameras, creating a convenient, continuous steam of images.

Ultimately, I’d like to see this kind of model displayed in a digital photoframe. Simply turning the frame relative to your viewpoint (monitored by wireless sensors as used in the latest Nintendo devices) would allow a different angle of the object in question to be displayed…in other words, a low-cost, digital hologram.

So is this really a model, in the sense of predicting things previously unknown? Possibly not, but I’m still thinking about that one.

#33: Proofreading display program

I’d like to suggest a proofreader’s program, which would display text in random ways -thus forcing the reader to check the detail whilst ignoring the meaning – which is always a distraction (eg upside down, one letter at a time, using different colours for each element etc).

This technique could be applied at different scales ie letter, word, sentence in order to screen out errors which are really only perceived on one scale.

#32: Mood alert

Today’s invention is an attempt to help those of us who are sometimes unaware of the subtle emotional signals sent by our loved ones.

Basically, I’m trying to think of ways in which we autistic-spectrum males can be alerted to what our XX counterparts might mean, rather than perform the usual textual analysis of the words they are using. (I fancied titling this post Textual Intercourse but chickened out).


Inevitably it’s a cellphone-based approach. Each time you get a call from any number, the phone temporarily records sections of the incoming voice and calculates eg the overall average frequency. When next you are called from that number, the average frequency is compared with its historical average value. If there is a significant discrepancy, you are at least alerted to the fact that the emotional tenor has shifted (maybe while you were in the garage, all last weekend?).

You may not be able to avert an emotional crisis but at least you won’t be so surprised when you find your belongings in the street.

#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.

#30: More catflaps

Apologies for my continuing obsession with catflaps. I’ve just remembered that Sir Isaac Newton was once ridiculed for having cut two adjacent catflaps in his door: one large one for his large cat and another, smaller one for his small cat….

Today’s invention addresses several issues with existing commercial designs.

  • They are noisy: everyone in my household knows when our cat enters and leaves home in the early hours.
  • They are draughty: that flapping two-way gate thing with the magnetic strip is just awful.

So, here is yet another alternative (and one that I’m determined to actually implement).

Make two standard cat-size apertures and insert the outer frame of a standard cat flap into each (Having removed the damn flap from both).

Insert into each aperture the top half of a leg of a pair of old trousers, so that the leg forms a tunnel around the entry. One tunnel should point inwards, the other outwards (a good idea would be to use some waterproofing spray on the leg which lies outside). The cat in question can use one tunnel for entry and the other for exit. Since the material naturally falls closed over the hole in each case -draughts are eliminated as is that dreadful 2am crashing noise.

Training the cat to use these is just a matter of holding the tunnel open a little for a while with a plate of food on either side (I hope).

Obviously the trousers are replaceable, since they also act as fur cleaners, thereby removing the need for all that vacuum cleaner hacking discussed below.

#29: Inflatable insulation

I’ve just spent a few days insulating our loft space in opposition to Winter’s application for permanent residency. I thought, as I sat there with a mouthful of glass fibre, that it would be much more convenient not to have to deal with all that hellish stuff. Mostly, I was working with foil-backed bubble wrap anyway but this material is pretty hard to unroll and cut to shape in the restricted space available.

Today’s invention is to make use of foil balloons instead. When only slightly inflated with air, these are able to maintain their condition for a long time -probably years. (If you were concerned about deflation you could arrange that all of these connect via pipes to a single plenum which would allow convenient repressurisation -but that is way too fussy: the whole point is to keep the balloons at such a small overpressure that deflation takes forever).

These offer the following advantages:

  • Flexibility: their small size allows them to be located within very narrow gaps and inflated whilst in place.
  • Cheapness: I can buy 18 Bob the Builder balloons for £2 (I’m sure that the price could be slashed by buying Santa balloons in January or something).
  • High thermal efficiency: thin layers of air held in place with impermeable foil has got to work.

If you were in search of complete thermal comfort, I’d suggest applying some velcro patches, so that the balloons form a continuous blanket.

It’s been suggested to me that surplus wine box bladders would be an even more effective approach, with the obvious added advantage that a glass or two of wine helps you stay warm whilst doing the work.

#28: Updated librarian stamping

(I’m really interested to see what sort of ads this page gets assigned in light of the above title).

Today’s invention is stupidly simple. I spend quite some time, despite the present digital era, queueing at the library to borrow good old fashioned books made of good old fashioned tree.

It breaks my heart to see the librarians have to scan in the barcodes for all my books and then pick them all up again, one by one, and stamp the return-by date on every book. My invention today is simply to tape the scanner to the date stamp and do both jobs on each book in quick succession.

If you wanted a high tech solution, you could go for a passive display in each book, which the scanner would update automatically. I’d always go for the duct tape solution, myself but come to think of it -why can’t I just download my library books yet?

#27: Daily relaxation message

I’m very interested in hypnosis and I’ve been experimenting with visualisation to help me achieve objectives and think more creatively. One technique I use is to spend about five minutes in the middle of the day just relaxing and entering a light, self-hypnotic trance -thinking about how to get things done whilst still enjoying myself.

So today’s invention is simply to record my daily relaxation script (which I update occasionally as I think of new suggestions) using the PrettyMay voice recording plug-in for Skype. This allows me to call myself and deliver the message each day at a time of my choosing. It would be even more effective as a tool if calls were delivered via a Bluetooth headset.

This approach doesn’t necessarily have to have a hypnotic emphasis, and might just as well be a simple verbal message of encouragement from your mother or a reminder from your spouse to keep things in perspective at work.

#26: Conductive tool for dyslexics

On the subject of cerebellar, ‘motor memories’, today’s invention is intended to help dyslexics with letter formation (and perhaps subsequent differentiation).

I propose a device by which a pencil is constrained to move in a certain sequence within a mechanical template or ‘gate’ so that it can only make eg the letter p repeatedly -rather than q, with which it may be confused. (I still have difficulties with (d, b, 6), (g, p, q), (9, e) etc. It took me about three minutes to type this last sentence…but then I’m also synaesthetic, and seeing letters with ‘attached’ colours adds to the difficulty).


This would probably require that each letter be constructed in the form of a single slot, with the pencil in continuous contact with the paper, rather than as a sequence of lines with gaps.

The allowed letter in question could be changed after several thousand repetitions, by substituting in a different gate. This is a little like the conductive education which the Peto Institute began, I suppose.

A version of this used to be available via draconian teachers who would modify anything other than perfect copperplate by use of a ruler. Nowadays they’ll settle for minimising the number of classroom fires per lesson.