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By Joel Klebanoff

More Suggestions for Inventors

One week last June, rather than running one of my usual tirades, I used this space to suggest some inventions that I thought would be of great benefit to humanity and, in turn, would allow their inventors to reap rich rewards. Much to my surprise, as far as I can tell, no one has yet begun to carry my recommendations forward. It occurred to me that some of the items I proposed back then, such as Star Trek-like medical tricorders, might be too difficult to develop given our current level of technical sophistication, so I'd like to use this week's column to suggest a few more gizmos, ones that will be a little easier to build.

First, let's look at vacuum cleaners. People have been using them for decades, but one small enhancement would significantly boost their service to humanity. Rather than running on electricity, vacuum cleaners should employ a self-contained fuel cell that is powered by dust bunnies instead of hydrogen. That will conserve electricity. In some homes (mine comes to mind), the devices might even be able to harvest enough fuel to feed excess electricity into the grid. Because many regions currently depend largely on fossil fuel-powered generators, this will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. At the same time, this innovation will eliminate the need to send all of those vacuumed dust bunnies to our already overflowing landfills.

If vacuum cleaners were more environmentally friendly, I might even change my own domestic hygiene strategy. Currently, rather than wasting electricity on vacuuming, I allow my dust bunnies to scurry under my bed where they blissfully breed like, well, bunnies. I find it cheering to know that at least something is having fun in the vicinity of my bed.

I don't want to pretend to be especially environmentally noble. The truth is that I'm only a seasonal environmentalist. In the summer, when my hometown of Toronto can get exceptionally hot and humid, I rail against global warming. In the winter, I run a hose from the nearest gas station to my car's tank and leave my vehicle running continuously in a desperate attempt to pump as much greenhouse gas as possible into the atmosphere. And Toronto is not the coldest city in Canada. If I lived in, say, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Whitehorse, or Tuktoyaktuk, I'd buy a second and possibly a third car. As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as too much greenhouse gas in those places during the winter.

Moving on, I think we need someone to take television technology to the next level. I'm not talking about high definition here. I can already see the dust on my coffee table. I'm not particularly interested in being able to spot it on a table on the set of my favorite sitcom, if I indeed had a favorite sitcom that hadn't ended its original run more than seven years ago. No, what I'm talking about are really smart televisions. I want a TV that can download a full program before I watch it, analyze it and, if it's crap, immediately delete it so that I wouldn't have to waste my time viewing it.

The storage required to make this smart TV work shouldn't be expensive. I figure it would only need enough memory to store the show it's currently analyzing. If the smart TV's inventor gives it artificial intelligence, it will eventually recognize that all shows are crap. Then it can turn all of its memory over to storing Aunt Ethel's recipes and donate its central processing unit to science. A word of advice to inventors: Don't program emotions into the TV's brain. Otherwise, it will commit suicide after being forced to watch all of that garbage before it ever gets to the point where it realizes that it can just ignore everything.

What else? I want a telephone that recognizes telemarketers, takes those calls itself, and keeps repeating "I'm sorry, but I'm not interested" until the callers finally believe what the synthesized voice is telling them. I find that when I do that manually it can take a half hour or more to reach that point, which is a rather extreme waste of my time.

On the flip side of the telemarketer-handling gadget, every minute I'm not using my telephone, I want it to automatically dial the customer service line of a randomly selected company. My phone should then arbitrarily choose a valid sequence of numbers in response to the inevitable "press one for..." string of menus. Once it gets a live person, it should play, in a continuous loop, a recording of an insipid voice saying, "My call is important to you; please hold the line for the next available customer." If another call comes in before the customer service representative hangs up, my phone should transfer the new call to another line, pick it up, and determine who's calling. If it's a telemarketer, my phone should automatically connect the telemarketer to the customer service representative and let the two of them waste each other's time for as long as they want.

Here's an item that should be exceptionally easy to build because it doesn't need any new technologies. All that's required is to merge an existing high-tech gadget into a very common, decidedly low-tech, age-old product. Someone should make socks with built-in GPS tracking devices. That way, we'll easily be able to find all of those single socks that we invariably lose. They could then find true happiness reunited with their sole mates, which, until now, have lived lonely existences in our sock drawers.

The only possible complication I see in the GPS sock idea is that I've become convinced that either washing machine drains or drier vents, or possibly both, are, in fact, portals to a parallel universe. It's my theory that our lost socks have been randomly falling through those portals and adding greatly to the mass of the other universe. The problem is that I don't think GPS works across universal boundaries.

This next one is specific to Canada right now, but it will, at various times, be useful throughout the free world. We're in the midst of a federal election campaign here. Choosing the best candidate is difficult because each party's platform has a number of planks. Furthermore, candidates don't always agree with their parties on 100% of the issues, although getting them to admit that can sometimes be difficult. I don't agree with all of any single party's ideas, but every party has made at least one promise that I agree with. Sorting it all out is a nightmare. The parties have all committed their platforms to paper, so I think technology should be able to help me to make a rational decision.

Here's what I have in mind. I want PC-based software that will help me make the best possible choice for me and my country. (Note to readers: In this case, PC means personal computer, not politically correct or Progressive Conservative, the latter being a perfectly good, oxymoronically named Canadian political party that officially merged itself out of existence a little over two years ago.) Because I'm such an altruistic person, I'll provide the algorithm, at no charge and under no obligation, for any of you enterprising programmers who want to code and market the software. It should work as follows:

  1. Use a multiple-choice format to discern my opinion on each salient issue in the current campaign.

  2. Have me assign a rank to each issue, on a scale of one to 100, indicating how important I think that issue is relative to all other issues.

  3. For each party, look at its written platform and, for each issue, compare my response to the party's response. Assign the issue a value of one if we agree and minus one if we disagree. If I don't have an opinion on that issue or if the party didn't make its stance clear, assign a value of zero.

  4. Multiply each value by the weighting that I assigned each to each issue.

  5. Total up all of the weighted values for each party.

  6. Because I sometimes base my decision on the candidate rather than the party, repeat steps three through five for all candidates running in my riding. ("Ridings" are what we call electoral districts here in Canada. Don't ask me why. I think it has to do with the fact when the term was derived, people were less urban and used horses for recreation much more than today. Riding is probably what they would much rather have been doing than voting. But I could be wrong about that.)

  7. Add the total score for each candidate to the total score for his or her party.

  8. Look at my voting patterns in past elections and use that to determine whether I have any ingrained party allegiances. If so, adjust the scores somewhat to recognize the fact that parties usually stand for broad ideologies beyond the specifics of the issues of the day.

  9. After completing all of the above, use a random number generator to pick the party I should vote for because none of them are going to keep a single one of their promises, so there is absolutely no rational basis for decision-making.

Finally, I mentioned the SETI@home project in a past tirade. (SETI stands for Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.) Using a grid computing model, it employs spare cycles on people's home and office computers to analyze signals taken from a radio satellite. What the SETI@home people are looking for are patterns that suggest that the signals were generated by intelligent extraterrestrial life. The project has been running for some time now and still has not come up with anything that conclusively indicates that there's intelligence up there. I think it's time to give up. The people who developed SETI@home should turn their talents to something more useful. Instead of wasting their time looking for intelligence in the heavens, they should develop technology that will search for intelligence, any intelligence whatsoever, down here on earth. The program could be made more efficient by ignoring our nations' capitals and this column.

OK, people, I've done the hard work of coming up with the ideas. Now it's up to you to make them happen.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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