mithriltabby: Serene silver tabby (Cleo)

Once we can print protein circuitry, it should be possible to create semi-living mouse-shaped cat treats that have fewer ganglia than a flatworm, as their only purpose in existence would be to be taken out of hibernation, set on the floor, and turned loose for cats to chase. They would, of course, be made to be nutritionally balanced for cats, and come with a program for your future-Roomba to track down where your cat devoured the animatreat and made the inevitable mess. (Less of a mess than a mouse would be; it would be able to operate with an anaerobic metabolism on energy stored in the cells before they were printed, so no need for a circulatory system.)

mithriltabby: Rotating images of gonzo scientific activities (Science!)

LED lights give a lot of light for the amount of electricity (enough that there are problems in snowy areas where LED traffic lights don’t melt accumulated snow the way the incandescents used to), but the spectrum they give off doesn’t look much like natural light; a “white” light is usually just a mix of yellow and blue. There are solutions coming up with quantum dot lighting that should make it possible to produce lights that approximate the visible portion of the blackbody spectrum, giving a true daylight look.

The next step after bulbs that provide a good approximation of natural light (i.e. a color rendering index near 100) would be ones that can dynamically shift to a specified color temperature, making it possible to have your house lights be bright and sunny on a winter morning, but dimming and cooling to be more like candlelight in the evening. This would help provide cues that it’s getting closer to bedtime. (You can already do this with your computer monitor using f.lux.)

mithriltabby: Rotating images of gonzo scientific activities (Science!)

With earthquakes much in the news lately, it occurs to me I haven’t mentioned here my Mad Science plan for dealing with them.

Background: geothermal energy is a very low-carbon way to generate electricity. Normally, it requires that the earth already be supplying the hot water for you (as in geysers), but enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) let you drill down to the hot layers, pump down cold water, and get out hot water. You’re effectively mining the heat out of the earth’s crust. (One well should last about 20–30 years, and take a lot longer to recover.)

One of the problems with EGS is that they can trigger earthquakes. They already shut down one in Basel because of that. But earthquakes happen because there’s pent-up energy from tectonic plates moving and the ground not having caught up— so why not turn the earthquake-triggering to our advantage?

Step one is to upgrade building codes and do seismic retrofitting. This means that pretty much everything vaguely near a fault line in California has to be ready to cope with an 8.0; in Seattle, where there’s a subduction zone, you need to be ready to cope with a 9.0. This is preparation we should make anyway, but with a Mad Science initiative looming, it should take on some urgency—

Because step two is to sink EGS wells up and down the West Coast, right near the fault lines. This will likely trigger earthquakes. Probably some big ones, especially on that stretch of the southern San Andreas Fault that hasn’t had a major quake in three centuries and has about 7 meters of continental drift to catch up on.

Once the big quakes are over, equilibrium should settle down to more frequent but smaller quakes. It would be interesting to see the actuarial numbers on this— it’s a massive infrastructure outlay, but between the value of the very-low-carbon power generation and the lowered risk of losses due to quake damage, it might be efficient.

Now if I could just come up with a way to tap the energy of the tectonic plate motion itself...

mithriltabby: Escher’s Waterfall (Home)
The world already has the Roomba and the Scooba; I want a Weedba. A small bot (maybe 18” tall) bearing a strong resemblance to a “daddy longlegs” spider that picks its way through your garden, identifies weeds that are sprouting, and carefully uproots them. This is probably more advanced than a robot fruit picker; the mechanical action alone would be tricky, and the image recognition to distinguish weed from garden plant would be very challenging. (Though if the garden starts out weeded and all it has to do is yank out any dicotyledon that pokes out of the ground, that would be easier.)

I’d love to be able to cool my house by putting a set of radiator pipes eight feet under my lawn (through which I can circulate water to have access to 60° temperatures all year round), but digging that much yard up would be extremely expensive. A mole-bot that can dig a small tunnel under my yard and plate the walls with plastic would be ideal: it would have trailing cables providing power and plastic from the surface, and a disposal hose for sending back the tailings from digging. (Rocks could be dealt with using an ultrashort pulse laser.) This would be something run by a professional service that you hire to install and maintain the pipes; they’d likely get huge amounts of business when pipes crack after earthquakes.

mithriltabby: Adam Smith with caption “Invisible Hand” (Economics)
Looking back over my notion of Toonconferencing, it occurred to me that the same technology could be used (with drastically more CPU power) with a combined camera and augmented reality system to give your entire world a cartoon overlay. (It would need to be amazingly fast, though, to keep up with the real world without introducing lag.) This sort of thing could see practical application for tasks where it’s necessary to highlight certain details and minimize others.

The really cool application, though, would be a high dynamic range filter. (If you haven’t seen HDR photography, take a look at the Flickr feed.) In addition to the aesthetic appeal, it could come in very handy when driving to cut down on glare and reflections of the sun.

mithriltabby: Graffito depicting a penguin with logo "born to pop root" (Hack)
By the time videoconferencing becomes popular, it will probably take place over fiber optic lines and not be much constrained by bandwidth. There will be some demand for it over wireless, though, and that is much more constrained. Wireless videophones will have to have some way to downgrade their connections to handle limited bandwidth. Right now, we just wind up with dropped frames and jerky movements, but throwing more processing at it could make things much more interesting.

When CPU horsepower drastically outstrips available bandwidth, there will be a lot of ways to compress connections. I expect one of them will be optimized for the most important data in video communication: the nuances of the human face. We’ve already spent decades working on a very low-bandwidth representation of that, in the form of cartoons. Once there’s demand for low-bandwidth video connections, I expect we’ll see “toon filters” that operate by identifying the important details of the human face and transmitting just the changes in those parameters over the wire (after an initial setup).

And once you can send a cartoon of your own face, it should be possible to send any other cartoon you want. Disney may even license their trademark characters so people can make calls as anyone from the Cheshire Cat to Maleficent. (Though that may get nixed as soon as someone brings up the possibility of getting an obscene phone call from the Little Mermaid.) More exaggerated cartoony features may even be easier to read on small screens than normal human proportions.

mithriltabby: Detail from Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” (Time)
Some years ago, I figured that customizable sounds on appliances would eventually lead to the tacky creations now arriving as moantones and groantones. Maybe I should try licensing my evil laugh as a ringtone? Though if Vincent Price’s estate gets the idea, they’ll own that particular slice of market.
mithriltabby: Graffito depicting a penguin with logo "born to pop root" (Hack)
So while using responDESIGN’s yourself!fitness, it occurred to me that it would be entertaining to create a version of the game using characters, settings, and music from the Ratchet & Clank games. The main thing to add to get the Ratchet & Clank feel would be to have multiple characters on the mat doing the exercises, occasional banter between them, and the camera work to support it. (It’d be entertaining to see a Lombax do yoga... and even more entertaining to watch Captain Qwark collapse in a heap during the endurance parts.) Insomniac GamesFAQ says “For legal reasons we are not allowed to take ideas or suggestions from outside the company. (We can't even read them, actually.) As a developer, taking ideas isn't really what we do. A publisher is who you would want to talk to.” Anyone know the most effective way to suggest a Helga!fitness partnership without causing them to ignore the idea due to potential legal entanglements? All I want is the game... I couldn’t care less about any rights going with this (rather obvious) idea.
mithriltabby: Detail from Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” (Time)
Put Grand Theft Auto III and Deus Ex into the video game blender to create Grand Theft Auto: Illuminatus! Your character hijacks Illuminati limousines, black helicopters, and flying saucers in the process of discovering conspiracies to rule the world.
mithriltabby: Graffito depicting a penguin with logo "born to pop root" (Hack)
Today’s Sluggy Freelance has a GTA game that I want to play:

mithriltabby: Graffito depicting a penguin with logo "born to pop root" (Hack)
Time for some mad science with political applications!

Conscience Amplifier

The hardware: a camera phone with enough PDA functionality to handle SMS messages.

The software: image analysis algorithms capable of scanning a UPC symbol (bonus points: recognizing a corporate logo) and querying a database about the ethical record of the company making the product.

The use: when you’re shopping, you just point the phone at any product about which you’re concerned. The phone queries a server that knows your preferences in ethical actions, and finds out what the ethical record is of the company, according to the editorial board of the server. Icons would come up in your phone’s screen to represent the record— smokestacks if the company is a polluter, golden elephants if they’re a heavy contributer to the Republicans, and so on. It will also suggest alternatives to this product that are more sound, and can even track how much money you’re spending or saving to help your social conscience.

No more trying to remember who you’re boycotting this week— just scan and check. This allows grass-roots economic action. It may not be enough to force corporations into good behavior on its own, but it would be one more bit of impetus.

One hurdle is the price of network bandwidth— but that should keep dropping.

The Broadband Channel

The hardware: TiVo Series 2 or equivalent, with the Ethernet jack connected to your broadband DSL or cable modem connection.

The software: A BitTorrent client, a network-based remote control mechanism for telling your TiVo to download a show over BitTorrent, and protocol integration with your E-mail client so you can E-mail a friend a link to a TV show and they can just click and have the show waiting for them when they get home at night.

The use: So what if the corporate-controlled media isn’t giving you real news? If you can bypass them entirely, you can just download news from someone you trust. This could provide anything from access to hard-hitting exposés to an echo chamber that makes Fox News look like a bastion of journalistic integrity, but reputations systems should settle that out soon enough.

The shows could even carry other hyperlinks in them. You could download five minutes of summaries and use the thumbs-up button to request followup shows that give more information in depth.

The important thing is to make sure technology like this stays legal. Instead of focusing on a radical “information wants to be free” model that thumbs its nose at copyright in general, we should support laws that leave technology free but crack down on outright piracy. Adding extensions to the file sharing formats to make it trivial to purchase the albums and DVDs that are shared would be a good gesture in this direction, particularly if these can be distinguished from other purchases.

mithriltabby: Serene silver tabby (Cute)
This article from Risks Digest suggests:
On a side note, with so many countries becoming democratic - or at least, somewhat less totalitarian - I suspect it's probably becoming harder and harder to find believable foreign enemies for TV shows and movies. We've lost Russia, East Germany and South Africa over the last twenty years, plus Iraq and Afghanistan in the last five, so basically there aren't a whole lot of believable bad-guy countries in the world left. I figure that won't last long, the U.S. Government will find some new country to target as the 'enemy of the month' or whatever period of time they need to distract the public.
It suggests a wonderful business plan: being the professional bad guy.

If Hollywood and the US government will just give me vast quantities of money, I will happily establish a subversive country that will serve as a generic bad guy to all other civilized nations. (It’s not like the United States hasn’t propped up its own enemies before. This will just be explicit. We don’t even have to keep it secret; Fox News will do that for us.) I’ll even be willing to give cameos as the evil bearded villain sitting behind my massive desk feeding fish to my Maine Coon cats while declaiming my nefarious plans and uttering my booming laugh (for which I will obtain an international trademark).

Naturally, as soon as my corrupt, CIA-laundered billions come rolling in, I’ll need to hire all of you, my friends, for various lethal-sounding jobs like Minister of Propaganda (person in charge of writing up enlightened social policies using the current scare words in use by the current US administration), Chief of Secret Police (who will need to find competent policemen who don’t mind portraying jackbooted thugs while the cameras are rolling and then going back to competent police work as soon as only citizens are watching), Secretary of Public Brainwashing (responsible for hiring competent teachers and providing a highly educated populace trained in critical thinking), Drug Kingpin (tasked with demonstrating that a country that legalizes recreational drugs and educates people about their proper use will do a lot better than one that outlaws them) and Intellectual Property Pirate Captain (who will be running the network infrastructure and establishing mechanisms to directly compensate artists for their work while cutting out the middleman of the RIAA and MPAA).

mithriltabby: Serene silver tabby (Cute)
On an online forum, someone suggested that perhaps more Americans would be better informed if there were a show like the Naked News (link not safe for work) attracting attention while dispensing useful facts.

That might be just what we need— to get past American censors, it’d need to be a show featuring gorgeous, scantily clad babes and hunks (centerfold models, porn stars, anyone eyecatching who can deliver the lines) delivering hard-hitting facts and analysis in language that’s as blunt as possible without crossing the line into slander. Anchors could make a point of doing a strip tease during any exposé story (finally getting down to topically relevant theme underwear), and engage emotions other than lust by trotting out examples of lying and hypocrisy for public ridicule. They could call it something like the Nearly Naked News (N3) or the Nearly Naked News Network (N4) or the Sexy Independent News Network (SINN), and would need to at least start out on basic cable. And they’d need a staff of competent journalists and writers behind the scenes.

It’d be an effective metaphor for making a point: any time someone complained, they could air clips of prime-time television violence and say, “So this is okay for TV, but our show isn’t?” For that matter, the presenters could lead thoroughly scandalous lives off screen and respond to any aspersions by pointing out that when they’re on screen, they’re delivering facts, and people shouldn’t be distracted by ad hominem arguments.

How else could such a show pander to the lowest common denominator? And once we’ve come up with the most sleazy, attention-getting way of delivering news, who should I send the idea to— Larry Flynt? And would this even work, or would the lying, distorting networks just adjust to match, with Foxy News, MSNBC-Playboy, and CNN Adult?

mithriltabby: Sleeping tabby (Zonk)
I started getting symptoms of a sore throat late Saturday night. I slept through most of Sunday and Monday. By then, the major fever was over with... but it has since moved into a nice cough and low fever instead. Kind of a “tour of the symptoms” flu. Fortunately, my employer allows working from home while ill, so I’m not forced to burn precious PTO.

Is it just my faulty memory, or are modern flus much worse than they were when we were young? I blame air travel: with people zooming all over the planet, we’re brought the most virulent flus from around the world, and those are the ones that get to mutate in a globally distributed population.

We need to bring back the dirigible. Sure, it takes longer to get from place to place, but adding extra elbow room on one is trivial— it’s mass that matters on one, not size. You could have spacious lounges, comfy seats, even private rooms, and all the connectivity you need to get work done while in transit from one place to another, without the discomfort of plane travel.

And you have room for partitioning, and you can put air filters on the circulation between partitions. People who have caught something in their foreign destination will start to show symptoms while in transit, rather than quietly spreading germs to an entire aircraft via recirculated air, and the crew can start damage control before the vehicle lands.

Maybe if we point out how this would be a stumbling block for bioterror, we can get the rabid paranoids to back this initiative as part of the War on Terror!

mithriltabby: Graffito depicting a penguin with logo "born to pop root" (Hack)
Elevators normally have a light that comes on when they arrive at a given floor and are about to have the door open. (This is particularly useful when there’s a bank of elevators, so you know which one you’ll be taking.)

A useful design would be to have the elevator communicate with the light on the floor where it’s stopping. If a stop was requested on that floor from within the elevator, the light should turn yellow, indicating to people outside that they should stand clear of the door; if not, it should turn green.

mithriltabby: Serene silver tabby (Default)
There’s an interesting general problem I keep running into throughout my own career and, secondhand, through the careers of my friends. It seems that almost every company winds up with people who have lost touch with reality in the management structure. When that becomes sufficiently entrenched in the company, there’s really nothing else to do but leave. This can break up competent teams and scatter them to the four winds.

It seems to me that it should be possible to create an intermediate state between “individual employee” and “contract house”. Call this a Team. It would include at least one manager (possibly a project manager and a people manager, or one person who combines both functions), at least one developer (though you’d likely need more than one for this to be at all worthwhile), and at least one QA engineer.

The incentive for a company to hire a Team would be that they could get a group that already knows how to work together and can trust each other. They would be hired as a group of W-2 employees (though they might have their own health plan if they’re big enough for that to be efficient), and would leave as a group if they decided that management had gone insane and the company was doomed, or be laid off as a group if the company is performing layoffs. The Team would arrive en masse to the workplace and start demonstrating good work habits for other engineers to learn.

The risk would be that the team would up and quit as a group, gutting the effectiveness of the engineering department, if they decided to move on to greener pastures. The obvious check for this would be to have a contract for giving a series of warnings to upper management, with mandatory minimum times between warnings: “The following problems at this company have our Team worried. If this trend continues, we may leave.” “We do not believe that the measures taken are addressing the problem. This is your second warning.“ This could be just as healthy for the company’s upper management as the Team would be for fellow employees if they take such warnings seriously.

Would a real company hire a group like this? I don’t know. But if someone can pull this off and demonstarte this is a viable pattern, it might improve the quality and stability of the technology industry. It strikes me as a knowledge-industry descendent of the traditional labor union. (A group of such Teams could even form a Guild, where people could move between Teams easily because they come with recommendations from other Teams.)

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