Ideas and Inventions

So many ideas. So little time. This page lists inventions I’ve prototyped, along with various other ideas I’ve had. It’s a good pile for a rainy day! (Published as a way of inviting collaboration, or to give a leg up to anyone who wants to take an idea and run with it.)

Social Advice Systems

Voting Advice  

The ability to give and receive advice efficiently and effectively would end the domination of the Big-$$ Party (and it’s two wings: The RNC and the DNC), by making money irrelevant to elections.

  • Based on the series, Taking the Money Out of Politics, a system of that kind makes it possible for a person to identify groups and individuals they trust and get their recommendations when it’s time to vote.
  • Tracking the numbers of people who give their trust makes it possible to measure the amount of influence that a group or organization has, in ways that make coalition-building a feasible reality.
  • Further, since groups that have been around the longest will have the most traction, recently-formed groups with great names like “Democratic Citizens for a Democratic Democracy” will tend to have little impact — especially when they’re a front for a corporation with less-than-altruistic goals in mind.
  • In other words, money spent on advertising to influence elections will come to count for less than the recommendations of respected advisors.
    Learn more: Voting Advice System

Movie/Book Advice

Based in part on the Voting Advice concept, this server software makes it possible to find books and movies that others who match your profile also like. In other words, you’re recommendations will be from people who tend to like the same things you do. The service is free to users, with the money being made when people purchase books, DVDs, music CDs, and movie tickets through the site. (Concept)

Dating Advice

Based on the Movie/Book Advice concept, the idea is to find a date for a movie who is likely to enjoy it as much as you do, whose list of movies seen and books read is similar to yours. So not only are going out with someone you have something in common with, you also get a list of movies, books, and musical groups you can talk about. (Concept)

Systems Models

Biological Nutrition Model

Capture nutritional and biological information in a systems model that represents the human body, in order to predict and diagnose the impact of nutrients and toxins. The idea is to help make it possible to reason backwards from observed symptoms to probable causes, identify potential remedies, and compare the results created by a treatment to verify the original assumptions. When done, it should be possible for doctor or patient to identify the causes of chronic, long term problems that result from a environmental toxins, dietary toxins, and “operational” nutrient deficiencies (present in the diet, but not absorbed, or not present in the quantities needed due to other factors)–or from a combination of those factors.
Learn more: Nutritional Systems Model.

Business Relationship Model

Use the same kind of modeling software to track the relationships (and time delays) in investment sectors. For example: Housing prices and average income increases demand for sugar and coffee (more lattes), which produces gains in transportation, which produces gains in ship building and trucking, which requires more steel, etc. With each effect occurring after some amount of time. Those effects, in combination with others, could make it possible to indicate an industry that is about to become “hot” or “cold” (for example, multiple relationships conspiring to raise or lower the demand for transportation). The trick, of course, is to keep the model accurate over time, as things change. (For example, high fructose corn syrup reduced the demand for sugar, but increased the demand for weight loss programs, “diet” pills, and artificial sweeteners.) But the reward for doing so it the possibility of investing in sectors that are primed for growth.

Reference Database

The Protege ontology system would be pretty perfect for this. The idea is have entries for authors, publishers, and publications. Then put in quotes, with links to each. When you need a quote you search the database, find it, and have both the exact quote and the information needed for attribution at the end of the article, chapter, or book.

I had the system running on my local system, at one point, but after a while it became easier to just put the quote directly into the book. Part of the problem was the effort/reward ratio. There was slightly more effort to put it into the system, but unless I was sure I was going to use it again, little reward for doing so.

On a shared server, however, the effort/reward ratio changes, in the same way that it changes for people who contribute to the Wikipedia system. For one thing, you know that effort you invest will benefit thousands of others. For another, you are likely to find that you benefit from what others have added — which makes you want pay it forward. Etc.

Exercise Equipment

Eric Armstrong holds a black belt in martial arts awarded by Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim, founder of the art of Jung Su Won. The focus on inner power training and core muscles of the body led him to develop of variety of training aids:

Isometric Abdominal Exerciser

  • A unit that will flatten the stomach and build abdominal strength.

Abdominal Bench

  • A unit that builds power and strength in the body’s muscular core.

Core Twisting Bench

  • I built a prototype out of old rowing machine parts. (It needs to be part of the abdominal bench to be really effective.)

G.I. Jane Bench 

  • (prototype built) A unit for doing those impressive, upside-down abdominal exercises featured in the movie. I built one prototype and eventually donated it to the martial arts studio I was training at. (The exercise looks extremely difficult — but it turns out to be pretty darn easy. In fact, it’s nowhere close to the best abdominal exercise to do. But it’s good for variety, and it’s fun to show off.)
    •  A decline bench turns out to have the right kind of leg-bracing.
    • A post at the top gave you something to grab, so it was easier to get in and out.
    • It would be cool if you could vary the angle from flat to upright.
    • It could be combined with a dip stand and a chin up bar. (Add an olympic bar for squats, lifts, and presses, and you have a total workout!)
    • It might also be possible to work in the concept of Chuck Norris’ exercise machine, but make it go up to vertical, as well. (His stops way short, so you can’t really work up to full body-weight exercise.)

Upper Back Exerciser

  • Use gravity and your body weight to build the upper back muscles so important to posture, and develop your core musculature, at the same time. (Basically, the “Australian pullups” you can do with the Perfect Pullup bar, only attached to a unit that doesn’t have to be drilled into the doorway.)

Magnetic-Resistance Trainer

  • A unit based on the principles of a magnetic rower, providing a wide variety of aerobic exercises, duplicating outdoor and sports activities. It allows you to build coordinated strength for specific activities. Terrific addition to an interval training regimen.
    • In particular, you could movements that involve twisting like throwing a ball, or swinging a bat, or scything a field (an all but lost art!) — but you could add resistance to the direction of motion without having other muscles unduly influenced by gravity (for example, by swinging a heavier bat).
    • The closest thing I’ve seen to this idea was a weight stack “functional trainer” that added bungee cords to the weights, so that when you “exploded” a movement, the weight didn’t fly up, become weightless, and then come back with inertia. That machine was good, because you didn’t have to wait for the weight to finish traveling, and brace for the shock. And it came with a variety of handles you could use to simulate all manner of movements. But magnetic resistance would be better. 
    • Interesting factoid: If you put a steel plate between two magnets, there is no resistance whatever. But if you put an aluminum plate between them, you feel resistance when you move the plate, where the amount of resistance depends on the number of magnets, their strength, and their proximity to the plate.

Yoga Timer

  • A repeating two-stage timer would let you select the amount of time to hold a pose, and the amount of time for switching poses, with two different chimes to mark the intervals, and an indicator to let you know which interval you’re in. The timer would keep alternating between the two durations, ringing a little bell to let you know when to switch. It could also have a “extend-time” button which adds time to whichever mode you’re in.

Golf

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Professionals track “strokes gained” in a variety of areas. Amateurs have more need of a system that gives them “strokes lost” statistics — in other words, which shots cost them strokes, and why. For example, the simple act of playing a “recovery” shot indicates that the previous shot — whatever it was — cost you a stroke. A penalty indicates that the previous shot cost you two strokes. Other examples: If you make more than two putts on a green, then your putting cost you a stroke. If you make more than one putt after a short game shot, that pitch or chip lost you a stroke.

All you need to do then, is identify the kind of shot you made, and the system can make inferences about which ones cost you strokes, and how many. Pressing buttons in an app can record the data, and tell you your score. A software system in the cloud can then store the data, show you the results for a game, combine them for multiple games, and view trends over time.

Such a system could act as a personal “caddy”, which would greatly improve the fun you have on the course. For example, the Swing by Swing app, can track club distances and suggest a club to use based on the distance you need, the direction and strength of the wind, and elevation changes — which does make the game more fun!

A more sophisticated app could even be used to suggest a percentage play, based on past performance. Systems like Swing by Swing are only concerned with distance. A truly excellent version would track every decent shot you hit (no sense tracking mishits), detect left/right dispersion in your shots, and identify widths of strategic points in the fairway or green, to help you select a landing area, as well as club that will get you there with safely. It could even suggest different types of shots, based on your lie, show you how to perform them, and track your execution!

A system of that kind would be easy to use, and help you focus your practice time in the areas where you need the most work. (The main algorithms are already worked out in a spreadsheet. It’s just a matter of converting them to a software system that is easier to use.)

Push-cart seat for golf

I saw someone who rigged up a folding stool on the front of his golf bag. When he wanted to sit down, he lowered the seat, using the slanted bag for a back rest. Heck of an idea. That’s an invention just waiting to be sold. (One competitor already exists, in the form of a combination golf bag and cart. It’s a useful device, but there are several improvements that can be made.)
Learn more: Review: Sun Mountain “Combo” Cart

Training Aids

  1. Mechanical Swing Trainer
  2. Electronic Swing Trainer
  3. Practice Flag
  4. Simulated Bermuda Grass putting green
  5. Swing Wall
  6. Stat-Tracking App
  7. Wrist-and-Forearm Tracker
  8. Putter Alignment Check
  9. Path and Arc Indicator for the Golf Swing
  10. Artificial Horizon Device
  11. Release Plane Trainer
  12. MMA-style Training Programs
  13. Products and Services
  14. Swing Timing Trainer

Bicycle holster for golf clubs

A way to attach clubs to your bicycle, so you can get some exercise on your way to and from the driving range. 

  • It could attach to the handle bar and front wheel. Or in the back, it would need to fold out of the way to get your leg over for a man’s bike and then fold up again so it’s out of your way when pedaling. (But a girl’s bike would be easier, and make more sense — especially for men!)
  • Additional accessory: A small bag that fits on a rear bike rack to hold practice balls, tees, and other items needed for putting and chipping drills.

Software Programs

As a trained software designer, Eric Armstrong has been building software programs since he graduated college, back at the dawn of time, before PCs roamed the earth, much less the Internet.

XML-based Content Management

The DITA standard has tremendous capabilities for component-based documentation. But installations that employ it need a variety of tools to ensure quality. Oddly, as yet virtually none of exist outside of insanely expensive CMS systems.

  • LinkCheck
    Determines if references to files, images, other pages — and to anchors within those pages — are valid. (written)
  • Link Management 
    When a file or directory changes name or location, find and fix all affected references both inside the file, and in external files. (concept. Learn more: RuDi – A Ruby-based System for DITA document generation.)
  • Topic Search 
    Search for text in title strings, in metadata fields, or in particular tags. Search for particular tags or attributes. And, of course, general text search.
  • Intelligent Spellchecking Tool 
    Now that books and other documents are starting to be maintained in XML, the time is truly ripe for an intelligent spellchecker.

    • Take code examples. They have completely different spell checking rules than regular text. When an error is found when comparing to one dictionary, the alternative dictionary needs to be checked as well. If it’s found, the error-correction dialog should get an additional option: Change Tag.
    • Similarly, the code-only dictionary could be applied to names that are all capitals, begin with a capital in the middle of a sentence, have capitals mixed in, or have a mixture of letters and numbers.
    • The program can be pattern-based and rule-driven, so writers can check their work against the company style guide. (For example, “allows…to => lets …, so “allows you to” or “allows them to” becomes “lets you”, etc.)
    • Such rules are terrific when a company changes its product name — you add the name change to the rules, and you know that every document you edit from then on will have that name checked, so it’s one less thing you have to remember.
  • StyleGuide/Proofing Tool.
    Many other “business rules” apply to XML documents: Are the appropriate tags used? Are they properly nested? (For example are lists inside a paragraph?) Are index entries in the right location? Do metadata tags in the referenced content match metadata attributes on the references? Are all topic IDs readable (for example, for help systems). And many more. A table-driven program would make it possible to identify those rules in something close to natural language.
  • XML Editor / Outliner
    Dozens of XML editors exist, and virtually all of them are terrible. The reason: They don’t have a good outliner component to work with. There is a “tree” component. But the tree only displays a single line in each element. There is no wrapping of text onto multiple lines. So if they have a tree structure so they can use hierarchical expand and collapse, they have to put the content of the currently selected element in a separate window. How baroque! A “tree component” (or “outliner”) that allowed its elements to wrap to multiple lines would become the basis for a whole new crop of really excellent, xml-based editors.

Utilities

  • Backup Utility: There is still a need for a really good backup utility that will intelligently synchronize stored data to a backup disk. (concept and design.)
  • Scheduling Utility: A utility that makes it easy to add yearly, monthly, and weekly tasks and anniversaries, so you can check and print your calendar. (concept and design.)
  • Budgeting Utility: Make it easy to plan upcoming expenses, and subdivide checking and savings accounts into sub-accounts for different purposes (for example, saving for taxes or for a car). Make it easy to see how much of any given income amount is allocated, and how much is “left over” (available for spending). Use round numbers for future income and expenses, convert to fixed decimal amounts when the expense is incurred or income received, so that future plans automatically become a record of the past. (concept and design.)
  • DocCheck (written): Check Java code for completeness of API comments.
  • Personal Task Scheduler
    • On the JBuilder Java Bible CD
    • Keeps track of estimated times for a hierarchy of project tasks.
    • Displays anticipated completion dates, based on sequence you tackle them.
    • Useful when you have multiple demands on your time!

Musical Instruments

Portable instrument case and rolling stand

After I saw someone carrying their instrument and music in a rolling cart at a Ukulele camp, I had to duplicate their setup. By modifying the setup a bit, it became a rolling music stand, as well. Perfect!

Mandolin-controlled synthesizer 

(Concept) Mandolin provides an easily fingered, easily played musical interface — but the short sustain and high-pitched timbre can give it a “plinky” sound. String-instrument controllers exist for Midi synthesizers, so a string instrument can be used to control the synth, rather than a keyboard. Why not package a solid-body mandolin with a synth that gives it the sustain/decay and tonal characteristics of a guitar? A note would be decay at the rate of a guitar string, until a new input was received on the same string.

Wide Neck Mandolin

The problem with mandolin is that the strings are so darn close together! My mandolin instructor solved the problem by having a custom mandolin made, using a guitar fretboard! So much easier to play. If it went into production, it would be affordable, and a lot of folks would find it easier to play

Combination Mandolin/Fiddle/Ukulele

The mandolin and fiddle make it easy to play just about every tune there is.

  • The strings are tuned in “5ths” (which means that every string is 7 notes away from the next), two entire octaves “fall under fingers”.
  • Since you generally don’t have to shift your hands, a lot of extremely lovely music can be played with finger movements only.
  • In addition, the uniformity of the 5ths makes patterns easier to identify, which aids learning.
  • However, the strings have a lot of tension on them, are metal strings for that reason — which makes them a bit harder on the fingers than softer nylon strings.
  • In addition, the strings are arranged in sets of 2, which are tuned to the same note, because they’re different sizes, or because they go out of tune at different rates, the notes created by a mandolin are musically pleasing to our ears, because they’re not totally pure.

The fiddle, meanwhile, is a fretless instrument.

  • At first, it’s a bit harder to master. But once you develop your ear, the 5th note of one scale will be (unconsciously) played slightly differently when it is the 3rd note of a different scale. In each case, your ear leads you to play a more “pure” tone that fits into each scale. No even-tempered compromises here. That’s one reason that a violin sounds so lovely — in the hands of an artist, the music is always in perfect tune.
  • And you can play a true vibrato, where the note being played is alternates between slightly sharp and slightly flat as the finger wiggles on the fretboard.
  • In addition, it becomes possible to play the semi-tones used in Arabic music, and the music of India, which allow for exceedingly lovely scales and musical patterns.

Despite those advantages, however, chords on such an instrument are extremely difficult to play! The wide musical spacing between the strings makes it that much more difficult to finger all of the notes in a chord. With a ukulele, on the other hand:

  • Strings are mostly tuned in “4ths” (which means strings are 5 notes apart), with one set of strings tuned in “3rds” (only 3 notes apart!)
  • As a result, chords are dead easy to play. There are several one-finger chords to get you started. You can have a decent starting repertoire with nothing but two-finger chords, and a couple of easy three-finger chords.
  • Then, when you get to advanced “bar chords”, where one finger acts like a moveable nut (the part the strings run across at the top end of the fretboard), you can see that your remaining fingers can be used to play those one-, two-, and three-finger chords, in different positions on the fretboard. (So it is relatively easy to transpose a song into a different key.)

Some sort of combination instrument, therefore, sure would be a lot of fun!

  • It might have two necks.
  • Or it might be synthesizer-controller of some kind, so flipping a switch changes the sounds you get.

Social

Anti-Hydrogenation Movement

If there is one single thing you can do for your health, it would be to avoid all partially hydrogenated oils. In terms of health effects, many byproducts of the partial hydrogenation process qualify quite literally as “metabolic poisons”. Yet partially hydrogenated oils are used in most of our commercially baked goods, because it is cheaper than butter. Eliminating that one item from our food supply could make a huge difference in the state of American health, and in our unprecedented levels of obesity.

Ways to promote to the idea:

  • Start a grass-roots movement to boycott products that contain them. 
    Learn more: How to Carry Out An EFFECTIVE Consumer Boycott
  • Circulate a petition to outlaw partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Offer a laminated version of the Fat Facts poster for $1 or $2.
  • Engineer some “social judo” by getting tobacco companies to (rightly) shift the blame for cancer to the existence of such substances in our foods (which might have a chance for success, were it not for the fact that the tobacco companies are owned by manufacturers of such things. E.g. R.J.Nabisco.)

Most importantly, engineer a Voting Advice System to make money irrelevant to elections, so representatives pay as much attention to the health of their constituents as they currently do to the profits of their donors. (That change would make it possible for change to occur in this area, as well as many others.

Housing Development Centered on Social Activities

Instead of building a housing development around a huge golf course, it could be centered around a dance hall. The idea came to me after discovering how big a part music and dance play in Irish culture. At the main Irish Center in San Francisco, lots of old folks come to the dances, sat in the chairs around the hall, watched the dancers, and talked to their neighbors.

Having a bar in the place doesn’t hurt either, but like an Irish pub, not everyone drinks! With a dance hall, folks could have a weekly dance of one kind or another. It would also give people a place to practice music and dance during the week. (Dances then give musicians a place to play. And during breaks in the dancing, singers, musicians and other artists — like solo dancers and small groups — can give performances.

A big game room would also make a good place to “hang out” and find people to play a game with — and exercise facilities wouldn’t hurt. The idea is put a “social center” that people actually use at the heart of the community. (Even where such centers exist, they are frequently vacant, because not enough activities bring people in.) The goal is to create a sense of community. That goal can probably be measured by the number and duration of face-to-face contacts among people in the community.

Note:
Competition is also wonderful for creating a sense of “us” (vs. “them”). So community teams could be formed, to play against neighboring communities. These would be informal programs, mostly for young adults. (For example, a community soccer team.)

Music Instruction Software

Something else I learned from the Irish tradition is the importance of playing music by ear, rather than reading it from a page. It’s hard to learn to play by ear, but there is no substitute for that process. The way it works is: first you hear it in your ear, then you hear it your head, then you figure out how to play it on your instrument. That all-important step of playing what you hear in your head gives you the ability to improvise, and express yourself — because that is what improvisation is.

Now, sheet music is good. Reading music is also handy. But the best musicians I know see the music and hear it in their head. Others who are less fluent use the sheet music to pick out the tune, until they get the idea and, once again, hear the tune in their head, after which they play it. Those are entirely valid uses for sheet music. But most music education in this country (other than the Suzuki method) makes children dependent on the sheet music. That’s horrible, for two reasons. First, they can only play what’s in front of them. They can’t create music, or express themselves musically. That’s like being able to copy a manuscript without being capable of writing one. Second, it turns the sheet music into the way to play a piece. The only way. And that is just wrong. Any tune is capable of being played in thousands of ways. There are pauses and frills than can be added. Notes can be held a little longer, or rushed a bit. When you can imagine variations in your head, and play them as they occur to you, then you are a musician. You then have the ability to express yourself musically, and carry on a musical “conversation” with others. And any time you hear something you like, you can learn to play it!

But learning to play by ear is tricky. The best way of teaching that skill seems to be “monkey see, monkey do” (aka “question and answer”, or “play and repeat”). In the process, the leader plays a short segment of the tune, and the student(s) play it back. The length of the segment depends on the ability of the student(s), but typically it is just a “phrase” of 3 to 8 notes.

The interesting thing about that process is that, at first, the student depends on sight. The student copies the instructor’s finger positions in order to make the sounds. However, despite that, a real connection is being forged between the inner ear, and the fingers. That happens in two ways. First, it occurs because the sound the student makes provides feedback that tells whether the student got it right. (At first, it’s recognized by the teacher, but the student quickly picks it up. It’s not a subtle difference, like tuning.) Second, after a while the attention naturally tends to drift. You find yourself no longer looking at the instructor’s fingers, but when you hear a sequence of notes, you automatically go to the fingering sequence that produces them. (At first, that memory is limited to minutes. But over time, it stretches out to weeks and months. So that you can play things you learned even years ago, after a bit of warm up to “refresh” the tune.)

A program could make it possible to do that “play and repeat” practice, anytime. It could put up a picture of an instrument, and show the notes as they are played. It could also break down the music into parts, phrases, and even smaller segments, dividing a tune into a “tree structure” that isolates common phrases. The student could then select the part or segment they want to work on (or even the whole tune) and repeat it until they’ve got it. (I have such a program started. It’s one of many projects that need attention!)

Based in part on articles on Learning to Play By Ear, the TuneTutor program makes it easy for a person to break a tune down into smaller parts, and play them at a comfortable speed. It even includes graphics to show the fingering on a variety of instruments, including mandolin, fiddle, Irish tin whistle, and Irish flute. (Exists as a working proof-of-concept written in Java. A music-notation parser needs to be added so the program can run on more than one or two pre-programmed tunes. It also needs to be converted to Ruby, which is a lot more fun to program.)

Music Teaching CDs (production software) 

As baby boomers retire, they’re looking for fun and educational ways to spend their time — especially in efforts that help to create a sense of community. Playing traditional music achieves all of those goals — but it’s hard to learn, especially given the lack of really good tutorials. CDs that break a tune down into pieces can make the tunes much more accessible. CDs can break things down into really fine units for beginners (one tune per CD), into medium size units for intermediate players (two tunes per CD), or keep things at a higher level for advanced players (a three tune set per CD). The tracks for the CDs can be organized on disk, and a software program can eventually be created to produce the desired kind of CD. (Until then, the process can be manual.)

Miscellaneous

Animated Algebra

This one occurred to me in high school. Algebra always has things moving around. It would be cool to animate the letters as they move around, to teach the concepts. X’s could strut on their two logs. Y’s could hop on their one. Z’s could stretch their top and then scoot their bottom under to catch up.

 Cross-Legged Chair

The “kneeling chair” is pretty good. It puts the back in a wonderfully comfortable position. But I find myself with my weight on my knees (upper shins, really), and that gets darn uncomfortable after a while.

The problem with the kneeling chair is that it puts a single cushion directly below your knees. If it had two cushions positioned slightly to the sides, and angled in, it should be possible to sit in a cross-legged position, with just enough resistance to keep from sliding forward, but with minimal pressure on the knees. (Or possibly a pair of straps would work.)

Reclino-Computer

An astronaut-style “zero gravity” recliner with a swing-in display and keyboard. (The swing-in display can be replaced by an LCD screen up on the wall, like a large TV.)

Other

  • Peanut Butter stirrer – Make short work of natural peanut butter.
  • Collar “Uprights” – keep your collar looking cool.
  • Checklist System – keep track of things you have to do, and keep a history of what you did, and when.
  • Shopping System – check the things you need, and generate a list that includes only those items. Check the store(s) you’re going to, and it can also sort into your preferred order for that store!

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