Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the move

Thanks for visiting. I am now posting this blog at InventorSpot. Please come on over for a visit!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sign of the times?

It was never my intention to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I'm afraid somebody has to break the news that the neon sign is on the way out. Advances in LED technology and Electroluminescent (EL) wire are rendering these electronic icons of kitsch obsolete, while their toxic components - such as mercury and argon - and high electricity consumption are raising the collective eyebrows of the environmentally conscious.

Fortunately, New York native and architect Kirsten Hively, is doing something about their impending demise. She is documenting them. Hundreds of them. All around New York City.

With Project Neon, Hively is not only capturing the images of the signs, she is capturing the stories behind them. Attached to every sign is a business, and she goes inside each of one them, making a purchase, and meeting the people that give the signs meaning.

Still, as much as neon signs are an important part of 20th century culture, not everyone is going to miss them:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bussed: the moves

Catching a bus can be painful. You stroll down to the bus stop on time, only to watch your ride whiz by, empty and a couple of minutes early. Then you sit, and wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually, the next bus arrives, 15 minutes late, and it's so crowded that you get carried off by a wave of exiting passengers at each stop, and have to work your way back on. Three minutes after you board, the bus behind yours overtakes you, with nary a passenger on board, and you wonder why you didn't just drive, or write the whole day off as a big mistake.

Evidently, someone at the MTA in New York has actually caught a bus at some time in their life, and recognizes this issue. Enter BusTime, a pilot program that tells passengers where their bus is.

Powered by intelligent transit technology company, Clever Devices, BusTime gives you real-time information about your bus via a range of methods, including text, internet, and email. You even get to watch your bus on a map.

But this isn't just about making things more convenient for the consumer. It's a public safety issue as well:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Meat your maker

There are many reasons your conscience may be telling you not to eat meat, while your body tells you otherwise: it's a massive tax on the environment; it's just not right to eat another sentient being; the factory farms where most of our meat comes from are just downright inhumane; the karma's a bitch, etc.

But what if you could eat meat that didn't actually come from an animal? That presents a few issues in itself, it's true - such as, there's just something fundamentally wrong with that. But it's still a great idea.

Medical University of South Carolina Assistant Professor, Vladimir Mironov (pictured), certainly thinks it's worth a try. He's been working on 'in vitro' - or cultured - meat, for the past decade, and is itching to find the funds to get it out to the public. Unfortunately, like a festering, green, slimy drumstick that's been sitting in the fridge for the past three months, nobody wants to touch it: not the FDA, not the National Institutes of Health, not even NASA (well, not anymore - they did donate a few dollars to the cause, until they realized they won't be sending anyone to Mars in the foreseeable future).

Surely someone would buy it? Heck, they buy this:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Skip to give food

Do you like the idea of donating money to worthwhile causes, but never seem to have the budget to justify it? Do you like to treat yourself every now and then? You may be the perfect candidate for Skip1.org.

Founded by former Hollywood producer, Shelene Bryan, Skip1.org asks you to simply forgo one of those treats every now and then, and donate the money to something more beneficial - namely, food and water for people who actually need it to survive another day.

One hundred percent of all public donations go into projects that achieve these goals, so you know that the croissant or pedicure or t-shirt you decided not to purchase, is going a lot further than it would have in your tummy or on your feet or back.

Which derives more satisfaction: fulfilling a passing desire, or helping someone out?

Here is Bryan explaining her inspiration behind skipping one:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The data is out there

There is truth in data, and the data is out there. The problem in this information age is not that we have data, but that there is so much of it, and it is very difficult to collate it and make any sense of it.

Dele Olowoyo wants to help us put it all together. His Global Intelligence app is designed to raise awareness of the issues that developing countries face, and to provide a way for people to help find solutions to these issues, through interacting with a huge array of data from The World Bank and the CIA World Factbook.

It's a lot of fun to use, giving you interactive, graphical data at the click of a button. You can learn a lot in a short space of time, and if Sir Francis Bacon was right, then knowledge is power.

Global Intelligence is one of over 100 entries in The World Bank's Apps for Development competition, which "challenges participants to develop software applications related to one or more of the Millennium Development Goals." It has been made possible since The World Bank made a plethora of information freely available back in April, 2010, as part of its Open Data Initiative.

Voting in the competition, which offers $45,000 in prizes, is open for the next 25 days. Here's its promo video:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shouting (and other stuff) on the rooftops

Today's great idea isn't a great invention, or a world-saving new technology. Today's great idea is just a great idea. Lewis Dryburgh (pictured) is full of them.

The talk he gave at December's Boring Conference, in London, was about spending time on parking lot roofs. How is that a great idea? Well, as he points out, these roofs are unoccupied around 90% of the time. That gives you over 21 hours a day to yourself, in some of the most crowded areas of your city. If you value your space, this really is a great idea!

Dryburgh is a font of quirky, uplifting ideas like this. Previously, he's left friendly messages around for people to pick up, and given his phone number out for random people to call. Stay tuned to his blog, to see what he comes up with next.

Here are 30 glorious seconds he spent on one parking lot roof:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Can't be e-gypped

While you may be familiar with the chart on the left, that details the volume of internet traffic through Egypt during the current political crisis there, what you may not be familiar with is the novel workarounds people are finding to spread the word.

There have been two distinct methods of overriding the internet block. One is to use old technology, and the other is to use really new technology.

Let's start with the old. According to the BBC, there has been a big resurgence in faxing, ham radio, and the old dial up modems that got the internet started. The real advantage of these, is that you don't need an Egyptian service provider to get access - so long as the number at the other end of the phone line can connect you to the internet, you're online!

The new-fangled approach is intriguing, too. Last week, Google bought SayNow - a service that allows you to post voice messages on Twitter. And now they're getting a great chance to demonstrate its efficacy. So many messages are pouring in with the #egypt hashtag, that you could spend your whole day listening to them and nothing else.

And if these two approaches cease to work, there are plenty more. You can limit the provision of technology, but you can't limit determination or ingenuity:

Monday, January 31, 2011

Holo scene

3D TV is so 2010. People may not be saying this just yet, but if researchers at MIT continue their progress with holographic TV, we'll be wondering what all the fuss was about pretty soon.

What's the difference between 3D TV and holographic TV? 3D only comes out at you in one direction, while your location in the room directly impacts what you see with holographic TV - or 'holovideo', as those in the know like to call it. In other words, watching holographic TV is like having the events happen right there in the same room with you - instead of just having things come out of the TV at you.

While there have been previous developments in holographic TV, they've typically required visual data from a lot of sources. What makes the MIT developments so exciting is that they've created holographic TV from a single Xbox Kinect camera.

Here is Michael Bove, Group Head of Object-Based Media at MIT, explaining this development:


And for those who enjoy reading technical jargon, here's the team's recent research paper on the subject.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Eyes wide shut

How many times have you walked by a homeless person? How many times have you invented your own story about them? How many times have you stopped to ask them anything?
If you're like most of us, your answers are:
       1. Many;
       2. Often;
       3. Never.
    Fifteen years ago, Mark Horvath would have given the same answers, as he drove his Mercedes mindlessly past the homeless on his way to and from his high-paying television job. Then he became homeless, and he came to the realization that it can happen to anyone. Now, Horvath has made it his mission to collect the stories that we have never taken the time to consider. And they are fascinating.

    Horvath has documented hundreds of these stories from around the country on his site, InvisiblePeople.tv, and they are as compelling as they are disturbing. He is a master at capturing the circumstances that have led so many otherwise 'normal' members of society onto the streets, and how difficult it can be for them to extricate themselves from homelessness once it has become their reality.

    Still, you may not be convinced. You may be thinking that these people are responsible for their fate. You may be right, but considering that the average age of the 3.5 million homeless people in the US is nine years-old, you might also be very, very wrong.

    There are many stories on Horvath's site, why not start with his?

    Saturday, January 29, 2011

    Taking food for granting

    Fundraising dinners are nothing new, but a growing international network has uncovered a new way to do them. Sunday Soup offer what they call meal-based micro-grants to creative projects in their respective neighborhoods.

    The concept is as cool as it is simple: a community of people gather on a regular basis to share affordable meals, and donate the proceeds to a creative project of their choice. At each Sunday Soup gathering, prospective grantees present their projects while attendees dine. Then the diners vote, and the winner gets the grant.

    So far, the network has granted nearly $20,000 in 25 locales, at a rate of roughly $400 per grant. There are currently over 20 Sunday Soup groups in the US, and anyone is welcome to start their own. Why not? The worst thing that could happen is that you'd have a great meal; the best thing that could happen is wide open to possibility.

    Here's a piece NPR's Marketplace did on St Louis' Sloup"


    Friday, January 28, 2011

    Jets dream

    The idea of jet packs is nothing new. They're regular stars in movies (including Logan's Run (left)), and there have been real-life variations on the theme ever since the Germans invented the pulse jet powered Himmelstürmer back in WWII.

    As it turns out, there are a number of complications entailed in getting a jet pack to the market. First and foremost being, nearly every method of producing a jet is going to generate a lot of heat. That makes the prospect of flying one a - shall we say - hot topic.

    1960s jet pack & protective suit
    Another problem is finding enough fuel to fly for any length of time. There's only so much a person can carry, and mobility is kind of important when you're flying through the air.

    So, while the concept is great, the possibility of you or me ever getting a chance to fly with a jet pack has been slim. Until now.

    Canadian inventor, Raymond Li, has come up with the ingenious idea of using water to power you into the air. His JetLev jet pack goes on the market in March, and retails for around $100,000. It may look a little cumbersome, but imagine the possibilities: with a few tweaks, you could foreseeably jet across the ocean, or around the Great Lakes, even up the Amazon. Meanwhile, though, just expect to see these things in and around resorts:


    Thursday, January 27, 2011

    Gym blob?

    Have you ever had a gym membership? If so, how long did you maintain your workout regimen for? If you're like 80% of Americans, it wouldn't have taken long for you to find a plethora of other priorities that prevented you from attending more than once a week. And then, when you realized you were spending around $800 a year for the privilege of little more than a membership card, you probably did the same thing as half the people who get gym memberships, and quit within the first six months.

    This equation doesn't work for you, and it doesn't work for the gym.

    Which is why Yifan Zhang and Geoff Oberhofer came up with Gym-Pact. Inspired by their Harvard Economics Professor, Sendhil Mullainathan, who asserted that people are more motivated by immediate consequences than by future possibilities, Zhang and Oberhofer have developed a social enterprise program in Boston that encourages people to keep working out through monetary incentives.

    These incentives work both ways: if you stick to your attendance commitments at a selection of fitness venues around Boston, you get great discounts on fitness memberships. If you don't, you get fined!

    It's for your own good. Huge Red Bear doesn't want you to end up like him (and you don't want to argue with Huge Red Bear):

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011

    Birth rights

    In Angola, nearly one in every five infants is dying. In the US, roughly three in every 500 infants die. In Singapore, the figure is closer to one in every 500. That the world's best infant mortality rate is 100 times better than the world's worst, is not only an indictment on a topsy-turvy set of global priorities; it's also a call to action.

    But what can we do? It's hard to get the necessary technology to the people who need it the most.

    Well, it turns out that it's not all about technology. A recent study conducted in Pakistan - where newborn deaths account for over half of all deaths under five years of age - demonstrated that newborn care counseling alone, accounted for a 15 percent decline in newborn mortality and a 21 percent reduction in the stillbirth rate.

    In an article that highlights this study, Melinda Gates mentions her own experience in India (a country in which over a million kids under one month old die annually), where similar interventions cut newborn mortality rates in half. Here she is talking about it:


    And to be fair, things are improving in Angola, as well:

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    STRaNDed in space

    As a rule, it appears that smartphones are a whole lot smarter than the people using them. No offense intended, but really, how much of a smartphone's capacity does the average Joe use? There's enough technology in one of those things to fly a spaceship. Well, a satellite, anyway.

    STRaND-1 stack and equipment
    That's the opinion of the team at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), who are developing a satellite containing a smartphone payload, that they plan to launch later this year. Called STRaND-1 (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator), the 'nano-satellite' weighs less than nine pounds, and could revolutionize satellite technology.

    It really is a touch of genius: an extremely cheap, lightweight device that can be improved by anyone that knows how to develop apps. Suddenly, the sort of technology that only governments and large corporations could afford and program, is within reach of the average Joe who wanted to be able to do more with his smartphone! If the range of creative developments that have come through the internet are any indication, the possibilities for smartphone satellites are literally endless.

    So it's unsurprising that SSTL should be the ones bringing us this technology. They're already into everything else:

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    Shazzam!

    It's one thing to say we're all one human family, but another thing altogether to experience it.

    Back in 2008, Gal Kleinman came up with one way of bringing us a little closer together. Magical Moments Around the World is a project designed to connect you to others as you share "a special event that you experienced in your life."

    Recent examples include the birth of a sibling, getting good grades, closeness with family, and a walk in the woods: in short, experiences that most everyone can relate to. The beautiful thing is that these moments are coming from everywhere: Pakistan, Niger, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, and right here in the USA.

    Anyone is welcome to submit their own magical moment, and if you're really enthused by this project, Kleinman is seeking volunteer project managers globally to "work closely with staff members to provide leadership in implementing, managing and evaluating the project".

    Not every magical moment is what you might expect:


    Sunday, January 23, 2011

    Nothing doing

    How long can you sit still in front of the computer? An hour? Twenty minutes? Thirty seconds? The average time that people have been able to sit still in front of Alex Tew's Do Nothing for 2 Minutes is currently sitting at around 58 seconds.

    Tew, who is best known for The Million Dollar Homepage, which (more than) paid for his college education, says he was inspired to do this because research indicates our brains are being rewired with regular dopamine bursts every time we check our emails, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

    Two minutes of stillness? Surely that can't be too hard. And it's good for you:

    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Out of clear air

    If you've ever experienced turbulence on an airplane, you know how discomforting it can be. One type of turbulence - clear-air turbulence (CAT) - is particularly disturbing, because it is very difficult to see with eyes or radar. Detecting it is further complicated by the fact that there are several unrelated factors that can cause CAT, such as jet stream, vertical and horizontal temperature gradients, vertical and horizontal wind shear, even gravity wave wind shear.

    Caused by converging bodies of air meeting at very different speeds, CAT has been known to injure - and even kill - people on board airplanes, with sudden drops of at least 100 feet having been recorded.

    Prolific inventor, Brian Tillotson, has been working on this problem for a number of years, and has recently issued a patent - on behalf of Boeing - that utilizes a regular digital camera to take a succession of photos of the horizon. An image processing computer compares the images for refraction of the horizon line, which is about the only surefire indicator that CAT could be present.

    A complicated problem solved with a simple solution. What a great idea!

    Until they implement Tillotson's system - or something like it - you best buckle up:

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    Consumed in collaboration

    Consume, consume, consume: it's been our mantra for decades now. It's been fun, but after every party comes the hangover-laden cleanup. The developed world is slowly coming to the uncomfortable realization that an economy dependent on consumption will devour itself once the snack table has been emptied, just as the developing world is coming to the realization that it would be nice if they could play, too.

    At some level, we all know that our current behavior is unsustainable. What we don't necessarily know, is how to change it. One idea that is gaining traction is collaborative consumption, which is essentially the idea that we can actually share some of our things. Highly radical concept, isn't it? Hardly surprising that nobody thought of it before. But I digress...

    While collaborative consumption might be a good idea, it will remain largely an idea until enough people get behind it. And the reality is that we remain in a consumer-driven economy, so money is an important ingredient in getting those people behind it. That's where Collaborative Fund comes in.

    Collaborative Fund is the baby of Craig Shapiro, a marketing guru who has a history of investing in fascinating technology-driven startups. Which is pretty much what Collaborative Fund intends to do.

    The $6 million fund aims to invest in collaborative, values-driven startups. Examples include entrepreneurial community ProFounder, learning games developer MindSnacks, and home-cooked food promoter Gobble.

    To see how collaborative consumption is impacting our world, watch this video, presented by Collaborative Fund Venture Adviser Rachel Botsman:

    Thursday, January 20, 2011

    Follow the leader


    We've all done it when stuck in traffic: read a newspaper, checked our text messages, fiddled around with the center console. But what if that traffic was going 50 miles per hour? Sure, there are still some people out there foolish enough to try these things at high speed, but most of us have had enough close calls to know better.

    The good folk from the EU-funded Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) Project aren't content with letting passengers have all the fun. They want equal rights for drivers, and are making it happen with what they call vehicle platooning technology.

    The idea is simple: when there are a series of vehicles traveling behind one another, only the lead one needs to do the driving. Given the right conditions, anyone behind that vehicle could theoretically let their car follow suit.

    'Theoretically' being the key word until just a few days ago, when the first successful demonstration of this technology took place at the Volvo Proving Ground in Sweden. It was also the first time their systems were tested on the road, which should provide some comfort to prospective hands-free drivers.

    The SARTRE team, which has representatives from seven companies and four countries, aims to complete this project within two years. However, it might take a little longer for regulators to warm to the idea, regardless of the projected 20% reduction in CO2 emissions that could result from less erratic driving, and less erratic driving, which could result in fewer accidents.

    As you can see from this video, it's all calculated very precisely to minimize the possibility of accidents, but there's not much you can do about lane jumpers who drive like this:

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Oil be Blest

    In the past month, this blog has covered both the recycling of plastic into its original polymers and monomers, and the development of sugar-based biodegradable plastic. These are both great innovations, but the reality is that each of them are still in the developmental stage, and both of them require relatively expensive, large-scale processes.

    Meanwhile, more oil is being used to manufacture plastics each year than is consumed in the entire continent of Africa. And it's no news to anyone that the very same oil that goes into making plastic is running out.

    Ideally, what we need is an inexpensive process that converts plastic back into the oil that created it.

    Akinori Ito, CEO of Japanese company Blest, is not necessarily an idealist. But he has turned this ideal into a reality with his Waste Plastic Oiling System (pictured), which just so happens to be a relatively inexpensive machine that converts plastic back into oil.

    For around $12,500, you can begin converting any old plastic at the rate of about one liter of oil per kilogram of plastic. If all the plastic that was manufactured each year was converted in this way, we would have an extra 60 million barrels, or so, of oil at our disposal. Each year.

    But it's not just about oil. One hundred million tons of unbiodegradable plastic is a big annual tax on our environment, our wildlife, and our resources. Wouldn't it be nice to know that the plastic we use isn't going to end up clogging a landfill, or having its toxic components burnt into our atmosphere, or killing our oceans?

    Ito thinks so. Here's a video featuring him and his invention:

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    The eyes have it

    Want to watch 3D TV without being encumbered by glasses? Want to have superpowered eyelids? Parisian director François Vogel may have invented just the thing for you.

    Vogel (pictured), who is better known for his more artistic endeavors, such as HP's You on You Project, and an array of short films, is developing a device you plug onto your temples that makes your eyelids go haywire, and gives you the experience of watching TV in 3D.

    As fun as this may sound, it is definitely not recommended for anyone with epilepsy, or for films longer than one of Vogel's shorts, as you can see from Vogel's demonstration below:

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    GRASPing a new reality

    Sixty years ago, Isaac Asimov published I, Robot, a series of short stories about robots who could, essentially, think for themselves.

    Robotic teamwork
    Good thing that couldn't actually happen, right? Wrong. The multidisciplinary team at the University of Pennsylvania's GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception) Laboratory have been developing helicoptor-like robots (Quadrotors) that can not only perform a lot of neat tricks, but can also work together to achieve goals.

    This video shows them building several structures, and boldly announces that they are limited only by battery life and the amount of building materials they have at their disposal:



    If this were the only project the GRASP team were working on, it would still be impressive, but it turns out the $10 million research center currently has over 20 projects on the go, including autonomous vehicles, imaging from touch, even robotic language comprehension.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    Laughing all the way to the sperm bank

    “A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22
    It's no secret that laughter makes us feel better. As the quote above shows, people have known this for thousands of years. Around the world, people participate in Laughter Yoga, which is based on the premise that the mind often follows the body: you don't need to be happy to laugh, but if you're laughing, you're probably going to become happier.

    We go to see comedies because they make us feel better; the clown is frequently the most popular act at the circus; we love to spend time with friends who make us laugh. Intuitively we know it: laughter is good for us. And research has demonstrated that our intuition is right: laughter does indeed boost the immune system, protect the heart, relax the body, and, of course, release endorphins.

    A recent study by an Israeli research team has also demonstrated that laughter helps increase fertility! In a study of 219 women undergoing IVF, it found that 36% of the women who were entertained by a 'medical clown' became pregnant, versus 20% of the women who weren't.

    Laughter really is a great idea. Just ask John Cleese, he knows:



    Read more about the study here.

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    New news

    Where do you get most of your news? TV? Newspapers? Facebook? Twitter?

    Think about it. If you use social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, then you are probably getting a lot of your news from those sources. Utilizing your friends as news sources has both advantages and disadvantages: an advantage is that you get a lot of information that is relevant to you and your social circle; a disadvantage is that your news will be skewed - you're rarely going to hear the other side of any story. That's fine if you want to hold steadfastly onto your beliefs, and only know what's happening in your immediate surroundings. It's not so good if you want to be truly informed with a balanced, global perspective.

    This problem has occurred to Bradford Cross (pictured), founder of Woven. Entering its beta stage, Woven intends to weave the news that is most relevant to you (the stuff you get from social media) with the news that most interests you (the stuff you get from traditional news sources). This way, you'll get your own individualized news feed, without the hassle of trawling through bazillions of sites to remain well informed.

    A data analyst by trade, Cross is inviting interested people to participate in a short survey at the Woven site, that will assist his team in developing this service. Give it a try, if you're interested in getting the news you need without spending the time you don't have to get it.

    Read a bit more about Woven here.

    Friday, January 14, 2011

    Like an orange flag to a field?

    Leonardo da Vinci once said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, and today's great idea is - if anything - simple.

    The Ag Flag is a flag on a flexible pole, with a bit of paper on the end. You bend the flag to the ground, stick the piece of paper to a stake in the ground, and when the ground gets wet, TWANG, the paper dissolves, the flag pops up, and you know you've done your irrigating.

    If your back yard is less than 20 acres, this might not be for you. But if you need to know whether your watering is done from over a mile away, this could be the easiest way to tell.

    I wonder if the Ag Flag's inventor, Mike Hansen, got the idea from the Australian barometer, on the right?

    The Ag Flag is currently the top vote getter among the Top-10 New Products for the World Ag Expo 2011, to be held next month in Tulare, California.

    Here it is in action:

    Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Don't poo-poo the poo-gloo, doo-doo

    If it weren't for wastewater treatment systems, the paddleless proverbial creek wouldn't be so proverbial.

    Billions of gallons of sewage are generated daily, and treating it can be expensive. A 'traditional' water treatment facility costs millions to build, and uses a lot of energy to run.

    Yet, as much as bodily waste is unappealing to the average human being, there are things out there that actually like the stuff. Like bacteria, for example. The kind of bacteria that eat excrement for breakfast, like to do so in the dark - probably because they find it a little embarrassing, but mainly to keep the algae at bay - and they like plenty of oxygen, and surfaces to grow on.

    In conjunction with the University of Utah, Wastewater Compliance Systems have used what they know about these bacteria to develop a device they call a Bio-Dome - and everyone else calls a Poo-Gloo - that utilizes bacteria to eat the carbon-based materials, ammonia, and nitrogen compounds found in every sewage plant from here to Kalamazoo.


















    It's a whole lot cheaper than building a new plant, uses considerably less energy, and achieves some great results. Poo-Gloos can also be used in aquaculture, impaired waters, and various industrial projects.

    To understand this technology a little better, Discovery News has just posted an article on them, and KSL 5 TV recently ran this report, as well:



    Please wait for brief unrelated ad to end - Video Courtesy of KSL.com

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Fixed with a click

    A lot goes on in a municipality: potholes form, lights go out, pipes burst, accidents happen. Keeping track of it all can not be an easy task. Reporting it can be a hassle, too: look up the number, get on the phone, press a bunch of buttons, talk to a few different people, cross your fingers, hope for the best.

    With the help of today's technology, and the team at SeeClickFix, it all just got a little easier.

    The premise is simple: people are out and about wherever a problem might be happening. Why not make it as easy as possible for them to report it, and help get it dealt with as quickly as possible? Simply by downloading an app for iPhone, Android, or Blackberry, you can, and help SeeClickFix achieve their goals of transparency, collaboration, scale, and efficiency.

    There are also applications for media and community groups.

    Importantly, the back end is also taken care of, with a dashboard and several customization options for the local government that wants to experience the benefits of this system. But don't let me explain it, let's turn it over to someone who's been using it, City of Manor, Texas, CIO, Dustin Haisler:

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Glass eye

    When the internet was young, it seemed its most common purpose was to forward emails. Then Myspace came along, and we got to share things with all the friends of our friends - so long as they were looking in the right place at the right time. Then Facebook hit the scene, and we shared things with whichever of our friends happened to be looking. Twitter was next, with the opportunity to share things with people we probably didn't know, but might have found us interesting anyway.

    But it's always been a bit cumbersome. You've got to keep coming back to your email or Myspace or Facebook or Twitter or whatever social app you happen to be using, and - with the exception of email - it's all pretty hit and miss.

    Probably not for much longer, though. Glass gives you the opportunity to share the web with exactly who you want to share it with.

    By using a simple add-on with Firefox or Chrome, you can just click on a button in your toolbar whenever you come across an interesting site, share it with who you want to share it with, and your notice pops right up in their browser. As easy as that: no copying and pasting; no looking for a share link; no changing tabs or windows. Just click wherever you are, and share.

    It really is as easy as shown in the video below. If you want to try it, just let me know, and I'll send you an invitation code.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Singing through the pain

    Aspiring to be a great singer, but are suffering talent deficit disorder? You could spend thousands of dollars in a studio, and have Auto-Tune make you sound like a modern day pop sensation, or you could go the the iTunes store and download LaDiDa for $2.99, and achieve pretty much the same result.

    Your call.

    In a TechCrunch column, the creator of LaDiDa, Prerna Gupta, explains some of the frustration she has experienced in bringing her product to the people, because the current trend in business innovation is to focus on 'pain points': that is, somehow solving a perceived problem.

    Gupta - who could not identify a pain point for this product - has evidently not heard me sing.

    But this could be my chance. Heck, this product can even make a dog sound good:

    Sunday, January 9, 2011

    Connecting the dots

    Anyone who's ever been to a supermarket knows that barcodes aren't infallible: a slight glitch or scratch can make them unreadable. But let's face it, barcodes have been around since 1974. They've been serviceable, to say the least.

    Still, it's hard to print straight lines, and if they're not straight, they don't work so well. This is part of the reason dotcode technology has been developed. You'll see it on everything from packing slips to concert tickets: an array of dots - instead of lines - that are much easier on your home printer than barcodes.

    But, it turns out the extra dimension offered by dotcode technology, provides the possibility for a range of other applications. South Korea's NeoLAB convergence have recognized this, and are producing a range of products that harness its value. These include a pen that writes on your computer, and a gadget that can 'read' the printing on a page - when that printing is riddled with dots, that is.

    Here's an LA Times video on the latter gadget, which is featured at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, that ends today in Las Vegas:

    Saturday, January 8, 2011

    Light traffic

    It's been 90 years since the first traffic light was installed in Detroit. As you can see from the photo on the left, not much has changed in the design. This, despite the fact that the most common form of color blindness is the inability to distinguish red from green.

    Several advances have been made in vehicular technology since 1920, which helps explain why few people still drive Model T Fords - the most popular cars at the time the traffic light was invented.

    So it may be time to start asking why so little has changed. Seat belts and airbags and anti lock brakes all attest to the focus on safety that car manufacturers have today - largely because of regulations imposed on them from safety-conscious governments. Yet, one of the most fundamental safety features that governments have under their direct control, is the design of the traffic lights that you'll see at every major intersection in the developed world.

    Fortunately, there are people who have been giving this some thought, such as Thanva Tivawong, from Thailand, with her innovative sand glass design (right). It has several advantages over the conventional design: its pictoral presentation makes it clear for anyone, regardless of their ability to see color; the timing aspect allows drivers the opportunity to get in better sync with traffic flows; and it also provides the possibility of drivers switching off their cars while they wait at the lights, reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

    WebUrbanist presents several other fascinating traffic light prototypes here. Tivawong's design was a shortlisted entry in designboom's 2010 design for all competition. Third prize winner was this novel traffic light design by South Korea's Li Ming Hsing:

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    Sweet!

    Around seven percent of all petroleum products consumed are used to make plastics. Then, once it's made, the vast bulk of the 150 million tons of plastic made each year stays with us in landfills, or is burned in our continual quest to make air unbreathable. The plastics that aren't made from oil are generally made from food crops such as corn and beets.

    In a classic case of killing three birds with one stone, scientists at London's Imperial College have developed a plastic made from fast-growing trees and grasses, and agricultural and food waste; in a low energy, low water use process; that readily decomposes.

    In contrast, what currently passes as compostable plastic is polylactide - a product of corn starch that is produced in a high energy, high water use process, and that can only be composted at high temperatures in commercial facilities.

    In short, this is a big step forward.

    Biological, dissolving plastics are just one of many innovations - including self-healing vehicles, invisibility cloaks, and mood monitoring clothes - that New York Times technology reporter David Pogue covers in his four-part Making Stuff series that debuts on PBS on January 19. Here is a taster for it:


    Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Educated mess

    The chart on the left - from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics - demonstrates the value of education quite clearly. But what about the value of educators?

    Looking at the chart below - from the 2009 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study - teachers in the US rank 26th (out of 33 countries) in their pay as a ratio to GDP.
    Combining the information from these two charts, it could safely be assumed that many of the best educated people in this country are not teaching. Which begs the question, how stupid can we be?

    Fortunately, things are starting to change - in Kentucky, at least - where a bill is being promoted to pay advanced science and math teachers a little more. Read a little more about it here.

    Of course, there's more to education than just science and math. But it's a start:

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    No problem

    People asking questions lost in confusion,
    Well I tell them there's no problem,
    Only solutions,
    Well they shake their heads and they look at me as if I've lost my mind
     
    - John Lennon, Watching the Wheels

    Andrew Hargadon, author of How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate - has written an interesting piece suggesting that the best way to come up with innovations, is to first find the solution, and then identify the problems to which it might apply. He argues that a common trend today is to identify a problem, and then attempt to manufacture a solution.

    He includes a great list of examples of problems that have been resolved through the initial discovery of a solution, including penicillin, quinine, Aspirin, and Viagra.
      Who would we be if we all stopped looking for problems, and instead just recognized solutions?

      John Lennon -- Watching The Wheels. Watch more top selected videos about: John Lennon

      Tuesday, January 4, 2011

      Thinking inside the box

      What do you do when you can't get computers to think like people? Get them to think like computers. Seems simple, doesn't it? But, according to Wired, it's taken programmers 60 years to work this out.

      Most of us still think of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as being computers replicating humans. But when you think about it for just a few moments, it's natural to come to the conclusion that replicating humans might not be such a good idea. To err is human, after all.

      But the field of AI is changing is remarkable ways, largely because of a change in thinking about what it should be. Intelligence is a difficult concept to nail down anyway, so why restrict computers to a certain type of intelligence? Why not just program a computer to use its logic to generate its own version of intelligence?

      And with that change in perspective has come a rash of AI breakthroughs that are becoming increasingly commonplace in everyday life, such as we see in search engines and Pandora, computer-driven stock trading, robotics, scheduling systems, video games, speech recognition software, spam filtering. You can even find AI being utilized in children's toys, music composition, and vehicle gearboxes and braking systems.

      All of this because of a change in thinking. Changing your mind: now that's a good idea.

      See (and hear) how AI is changing the face of music composition:

      Monday, January 3, 2011

      Was that me?

      Most of us are familiar with having experienced a warm breeze passing by our nether regions when relieving ourselves. Not quite so many of us have experienced one coming from the - shall we say - commode.

      But you can, with the help of Japanese toilet maker, Toto. Their Neorest 600 (pictured) not only offers three (hands-free) cleaning modes, it then dries you with its 'Adjustable, Warm Air Dryer'. If that's not enough, it offers a range of other pleasant bathroom surprises, including an air purifier; automatic opening, closing, and flushing; a heated seat; a self-cleaning system; and even a remote control (though what that's for, is a little unclear).

      But don't believe me. Ask Will Smith:



      For some other things that could rock your domestic world, check out this fun Cracked.com article.

      Sunday, January 2, 2011

      Art and about

      Everyone knows that you can go to a gallery or theater to see art, yet realistically, how often do you do so? Not as often, no doubt, as you go shopping or work out or go for a drink. The Charlotte Street Foundation of Kansas City, MO, has recognized this, and has initiated Rocket Grants, which are designed to "fund projects that exist outside of established institutions, occur outside of traditional forms of support, challenge traditional methods of production or presentation, add energy and diversity to the field of arts activity in our area, and provide opportunities for the creative growth of those involved."

      In short, they are focused on bringing art to the people, not people to art. Here are some highlights from a recent project - WorkArtOut - in which live performance art was taken to a sports field and gym:



      This is surely just one example of many, of organizations funding people to take art to the streets. What is happening in your area? What can you do to help this kind of thing happen in your area?

      A Kansas City Star article on Rocket Grants can be found here.

      Saturday, January 1, 2011

      Grow your own

      The idea of growing your own food is not new. The idea of self-sustainability is not new. And neither is the idea of developing a garden that will feed your family for 30 generations. In fact, this idea is at least 300 years old, as demonstrated by a garden in Vietnam, that has supported a family for 28 generations to-date:



      As much as this idea might not be new, it is most certainly novel in this culture that is so heavily steeped in independence, rather than interdependence - a culture that is younger than this garden. But it's happening. The Food Forests Across America project has been underway for at least a year now, and the idea is gaining steam.

      Do you want to create a food forest that serves your family for multiple generations to come? You can, and Erik Ohlsen of Permaculture Artisans would like to help you. Call him at (707) 332-8100, or email him, and you can begin to create a legacy that will feed many.