Showing posts with label Things They Should Invent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Things They Should Invent. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Things They Should Invent: manual wifi switches on cable modems

One of my many delightful eccentricities is that I don't normally use wifi. The vast, vast, vast majority of my interneting is done on my computer at my desk, so I connect the computer to the modem by ethernet cable. I do turn on the wifi when I need it, but I figure keeping it always-on would increase the risk of someone breaking into my network without benefitting me in anyway.

However, this could become a problem if my computer dies.  Currently, the way to turn my wifi on and off is by accessing the modem through my web browser.  If my computer dies so completely that I can't persuade it to cling to life for long enough to turn my wifi on, I won't be able to get online with an alternative device.

Solution: a manual switch on cable modems that can turn the wifi on and off.  In addition to allowing you to turn on your wifi when you don't have a computer, it would also allow you to definitively turn off your wifi and thereby control access to your network - for example if you suspect someone unauthorized is using it but don't have the technical prowess to confirm, or if you're a parent who wants to keep close tabs on your kids' internet use.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Things They Should Invent: Uber but for driving practice

I've blogged before about the problem of driving schools being based on the assumption that you  have a car to practise in and a willing, fully-licensed driver to accompany you while you practise.  And if you don't have a car to practise in and a willing, fully-licensed driver to accompany you, you won't get enough practice to get good enough to pass the test, unless you pay your driving instructor a significant (and prohibitive to some) amount of money to accompany you while you practise.

It occurred to me in the shower that the Uber model could fill this gap.

The client creates an Uber account indicating that they are a learning driver looking for an accompanying driver to practice with.  The car owner accepts the client as usual, arrives at the client's location as usual, and the only difference is that the client drives the car to their destination and the accompanying driver sits in the passenger seat, serving as accompanying driver.

The client would pay the car owner more money than the typical Uber fee to make up for the increased risk incurred by the car owner. (It would have to be less than the a driving instructor would typically charge for a lesson - I don't know offhand if Uber drivers would consider that sufficient compensation for increased risk.)  Uber drivers could, of course, opt out of providing driving practice, and instead provide only driving services.  I don't know how it would work for insurance, but Uber has operated (and possibly still does operate) in a questionable insurance environment and that didn't stop it.

Even if the client does supplement their practice with additional professional lessons, the Uber model could be useful by allowing the client to get driving practice whenever they have to go somewhere (which is often how it works when you already have a car and an accompanying driver in the household) rather than having to book lessons whenever they fit in the instructor's schedule. Going to work? Driving practice! Going on an errand? Driving practice!

Obviously, this model is not ideal. The ideal would be a baseline driving instruction system that works equally well for clients who have a car in their household and clients who don't have access to a car, where instructors are well-paid, well-trained and properly insured, and where quality driving instruction is reasonably affordable to all clients.

But in the meantime, this is a need. If there are people willing to serve as accompanying driver in exchange for pay, the Uber model could fill this need. And it would enable new drivers for whom practice is inaccessible to become more experienced before getting fully licensed.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Things They Should Invent: outlaw commission

Originally I was writing a blog post about how commission-based compensation for various professionals involved in real estate transactions is a problem - it disincentivizes taking on first-time buyers of primary residences as clients (because we have less money to spend and need more hand-holding) and incentivizes taking on investors as clients (they have more money to spend, have less at stake because they don't actually live in the property, and are more likely to buy again soon). I was writing some half-formed ideas about whether this commission model might be encouraging sales to non-resident investors at the expense of regular people just trying to buy a home, especially first-time buyers.

But as I was writing this, I realized the problem is not limited to commission on real estate transactions.  The problem is commission on all sales.

I propose that it should be banned, and salespeople should be paid a salary instead (possibly with bonuses for excellent customer service.)

I'm not saying this from my point of view as a worker. (Although it certainly is a labour issue too!)  I'm saying this from my point of view as a consumer.

Even moderately experienced salespeople know far more about their products than I do. They know stuff like "If you can squeeze into a 10.5 in the Operetta shoe family but would prefer 11, then you're a 12 in the Miracles shoe family." or "If your primary motivation in looking at this $700 phone is that it has more storage, you should be aware that that $300 phone can accommodate an SD card."

But because they're incentivized to sell more rather than to provide excellent customer service, they might not want to share this expertise with us, and we might not know if we can trust the expertise they do share.

If salespeople weren't incentivized to sell more and instead were incentivized to best meet the customer's needs, then products that actually meet people's needs would sell better. Demand for products that meet needs would increase, demand for products that don't meet needs would decline, and the overall offer of products on the market would improve.

As consumers grow more confident that products they buy will meet their needs, they will grow less reluctant to shop. (I would buy so many more clothes if I knew they would work, and didn't have to keep trying on things that didn't work!) Insofar as there is disposable income, people will be happy to spend it. This will boost the economy, and make the market function more optimally.

If you ever buy things, you would benefit from the elimination of commission. If you want eliminate any consumer reluctance to shop, you should be in favour of eliminating commission. If you want the market to function as it should, with demand for things that meet consumer needs and no demand for things that don't, then you should be in favour of eliminating commission. If you're a company that produces excellent products and want your excellent products to outsell less-excellent products, you would benefit from the elimination of commission. If you're a salesperson who truly wants to use your expertise to help guide people to the right product for them and enjoy return business from happy customers, you would benefit from the elimination of commission.

Basically, unless your primary objective is to cheat, coerce and manipulate people into buying things they don't need, you would do better without commission.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Things They Almost Invented: pre-sliced frozen pizza

I previously came up with the idea of pre-sliced frozen pizza. You can't cut a frozen pizza, but a whole frozen pizza is more than one person should eat in one sitting. And pizza loses a significant amount of yumminess when you reheat it. (And single-serving mini pizzas have too much crust for the amount of toppings/too little toppings for the amount of crust.)

Today I found something that can fulfill the same function: Dr. Oetker Ristorante Ultra Thin Crust pizza.

It isn't pre-sliced, but the crust is so thin I could easily snap it in two with my bare hands! It's not as precise as cutting it in half, but it's certainly a workable way to not have to heat up the whole thing.

If you're in the market for frozen thin-crust pizza but don't want to eat the whole thing or reheat the rest later, I recommend giving it a try.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Things They Should Invent: platonic meetup app for women attending events alone

Sometimes it can be logistically inconvenient to go to events alone. It can be a lot easier to go as part of a group, so you can hold each other's place in a general admission audience or keep an eye on each other if the situation turns questionable. These inconveniences are felt particularly by women, what with dealing with purses and keeping an eye on your drink and getting home safely at night.

Sometimes when I'm at a place alone and I need a buddy, I form a temporary alliance with another woman who's also there alone. I'll hold your place while you go to the bathroom, then we'll trade. Would you join me in walking back to the subway after?

But you can't just blindly assume there will be someone there to serve as a buddy when you need one. So sometimes, when I'm uncertain about going as a woman alone and I can't find someone to go with me, I end up not going.

What if there was an app for that?

I envision two parts: one that's kind of like Meetup, and one that's kind of like Grindr, but both platonic-only and women-only.

The Meetup aspect (which doesn't have to be an app - it can and should function as a website) is for people who are considering attending an event but don't want to go alone. You click on "I'm interested", you see a list of other people who are interested, and you can get in touch and make plans. (Potential safety feature: you can indicate on the website who you're going with, so the website has a record. I'm not a superfan of facebook integration, but maybe your facebook friends can see who you're going with?)

The Grindr aspect (which has to be an app because it's location-based) is for if you're already at an event and you want a buddy.  Maybe the crowd is more of a crush than you anticipated, maybe the walk back to the subway is scarier at night than it looked on Google Street View, maybe you don't dare brave those portapotties alone. You sign into the app, indicate where you are and that you're looking for a buddy, and see anyone else present who's looking for a buddy.

Of course, as with so many things in life, the challenge is the creep factor.  How do you keep out people who are just looking for single women, either for a hookup or to find vulnerable people?

The only idea I can think of initially is a nominal membership charge (like Metafilter's $5) that has to be paid by a credit card with a female name on it. But, obviously, there are problems with that. How would whoever or whatever is responsible for determining if a name is female tell that Jean Augustine is a woman but Jean Charest is a man? What about the poor girl whose parents decided to kre8tively name her Bruce? It would also marginalize people who don't have credit cards, or aren't at liberty to use credit cards for this, which would include minors. If, for whatever reason, a 15-year-old girl is going somewhere alone and feels the need to reduce the risk or difficulty of doing so, she shouldn't be shut out of a tool for doing so because she's a minor.

But if there was a way to keep the creeps out, it could be incredibly useful.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

How Google can solve the "post-truth" problem in one easy step

Google searches contain the option to refine results time posted. On the results page, click on "Tools", then click on the little drop-down arrow next to "Any time".

This means that Google maintains "last updated" metadata for the pages it crawls.  Which means that Google can sort results by date.

Google can use this power to combat the "post-truth" problem with one easy step: allow users to sort search results from oldest to newest.  That way, the very first instance of a particular combination of keywords will be right at the top.

This will make it a lot easier to see when a story or an alleged fact has been fabricated out of whole cloth, because the first result (or, at least, the first result that actually refers to the thing in question) is very recent and originates from the person making the false statement.

It would also be an incredibly useful feature to have in Google's Reverse Image Search. Often I do a reverse image search to find the origin of an image that's circulation, but the fact that even Google's relevance algorithm tends to favour novelty means I get pages and pages of results from social media. If we could easily show the oldest instances of an image first, we could quickly identify cases where someone is posting "This is what's happening right now" when really it's an image taken in a different country several years ago.

Google already has this data, as evidenced by the fact that it allows you to refine results by time posted. Any computer can sort by date. All Google has to do is put an "Oldest First" option on its interface, and everyone will be able to fact-check with a single click.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Things They Should Invent: bottled flat ginger ale

A common home remedy for an upset stomach or nausea is to drink flat ginger ale.

This is less easy than it could be, because ginger ale only comes carbonated, so you have to open it and pour it out and wait for it to go flat.

Solution: sell ginger ale that's already flat. If ginger ale can't be manufactured without first making it carbonated, then they should let it go flat before bottling it, and bottle it like water or juice or similar flat beverages.

The market for this: airlines (and, perhaps, other modes of transportation that provide food service and where people might get motion sick, like trains where you might have to sit backwards). Wouldn't it be convenient to be able to offer one of the standard home remedies for motion sickness in your standard drink selection?

Some parts of the internet suggest that flat ginger ale doesn't actually help with motion sickness, but I'm not sure that that matters. Other parts of the internet are convinced that it's panacea, so the demand does exist.  And if you're stuck in a plane for hours and fighting off airsickness with nothing but a basic drink selection to help you, wouldn't you choose the common home remedy just in case it helps? Even if it's a placebo effect, it might still bring relief, or, at a minimum, the comfort of feeling like you're doing something for your motion sickness. And if it does in fact work for some people, even if just as a placebo, all the better!

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Things They Should Invent: put buildings on the internet before they tear them down

In my neighbourhood, there's a group of row houses that's going to be torn down for condos, and I'm extremely curious about what they look like inside - so much so that I've even pondered attempting to break in engage in some urban exploration, which isn't something I've even considered before.

The reason why I'm curious about these houses as opposed the many other buildings that are being torn down for condos is that I can't figure out their history just by looking at them from the outside. I'm not savvy enough about architecture to tell when they were built. I can't tell if they're single family homes or apartments. I can't tell if they're middle-class or working-class. I can't tell if they're middle-class single-family homes that latter got subdivided into working-class apartments. They clearly have a story, and I can't even begin to speculate what that story is.

Every building that is torn down has a story, and you never know when or to whom that story will be of interest.  So to preserve our stories, they should document buildings before they tear them down, and post all the information on the internet.

On a single comprehensive website, interior and exterior photos, floor plans, and all known history should be posted for every building that is torn down.  Maybe the public could also add to it, so someone idly googling their grandparents' old house could come along and add the interesting factoid "My grandparents bought this house for $10,000 in 1952 and raised four children here on a steelworker's salary."

I'm not a person who objects to development (as evidenced by the fact that I keep insisting on living in new buildings), but there's no reason why the stories of what was here before should be lost in an era when everything can be so easily archived and indexed.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Things They Should Invent: computer program to automatically design custom-made organizers

There are all kinds of organizer-type products out there that purport to help you organize your clutter by putting it into compartments.  The problem I always find is that the compartments are never a good fit for my clutter.  For example, a drawer organizer might divide your drawer into nine tidy compartments, but I always end up in a situation where the contents of the drawer can logically be sorted into seven categories, one of which is too big for a single compartment, plus about 20% of the contents of the drawer are the wrong size or shape for any of the compartments.

As I've blogged about before, I own a beautiful wooden jewellery box full of tidy, velvet-lined compartments for organizing jewellery, and a significant portion of my jewellery doesn't fit in there because the shapes and sizes of the compartments don't correspond with the shapes and sizes of the jewellery. #FirstWorldProblems

It occurred to me that with 3D printing, people could make organizers that fit the actual stuff they're organizing.  I googled around the idea, and found that such a thing does in fact exist, except you have to input into a program the exact dimensions of the organizer you want to print.  For someone like me who's terrible at organizing tangible objects, that's very near impossible.

But that gave me an idea: what if you could input the dimensions of the items you want to organize and the space you want to organize them in, and a computer program would design the optimal organizer for you?

You could also input leeway for expansion, so the organizer will be able to hold items you might acquire in the future.  (In other words, your jewellery organizer would allow you the option of acquiring more jewellery in the future, as opposed to being 100% full and your whole system is stymied when you get another pair of earrings.)

Advanced option: you take a photo of all the items you need to organize and the space you need to organize them in, with some baseline reference item in the photo for scale, and the computer measures everything itself and designs the organizer automatically.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Things They Should Invent: website comparing hotel beds

I recently stayed in Marriott hotel, and I found the bed uncomfortable. The mattress was too firm for my liking, the pillows were not firm enough, and the covers weren't heavy enough (in terms of weight, not necessarily warmth - I feel more secure sleeping under a large, weighty duvet).

Because of this, I'd prefer to avoid staying at a Marriott in the future. However, I have no idea what hotels might have beds that are more to my liking.

There are some people in the world who travel extensively and stay in all kinds of different hotels.  Perhaps some of them have found the Marriott beds similarly uncomfortable, but have also discovered a hotel whose beds are more comfortable.  Or, conversely, perhaps some of them found the Marriott beds to their liking after experiencing another hotel where they thought the mattress was not firm enough and the pillows were too firm, so I could extrapolate from that to choose the hotel whose bed they disliked.

With a critical mass of bed reviews, travellers could enter their preferred bed criteria and find the hotel that best meets them, which would certainly make everyone's travel experience more pleasant!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Another way to improve any assisted dying legislation

A problem with attempts to legislate assisted dying is that they attempt to define in legislation what does and doesn't constitute a good enough reason to die, and thereby what does and doesn't constitute adequate quality of life. As life and death are infinite and complex, some things will almost certainly fall through the cracks.

At the same time, when legislation includes specific things that are considered acceptable reasons to want to die, some people who have those conditions or experiences but don't want to die sometimes take offence, as though society is telling them that they don't deserve to live.  And this push-back may lead legislators to be reluctant to include additional specific conditions, for fear of offending more constituents.

These problems could be mitigated with a single provision: if the patient wants to die because of the absence of a specific aspect of quality of life, and the patient does not have a reasonable chance of gaining or regaining that aspect of quality of life, the patient is permitted to die.

The advantage of this is it takes legislators out of the business of deciding what is and isn't deathworthy (or, depending on your perspective, lifeworthy). Each patient gets to set their own priorities.

In carrying this out, medical professionals should drill down and make sure they pinpoint the actual quality of life issue that's important to the patient, in case it could be addressed some other way.  For example, if a patient says "I want to die if I ever end up paralyzed," what exactly is it about being paralyzed that makes them feel it's deathworthy? Are they afraid of never having sex again? Are they afraid of being dependent on someone else to bathe them for the rest of their life? And are these things that actually happen if you're paralyzed, or are there workarounds that the patient doesn't know about?

If they pinpoint that what the patient actually fears is being dependent on someone else to bathe them for the rest of their life, the living will would be edited from "I want to die if I ever end up paralyzed" to "I want to die if I ever end up in a condition where I'm dependent on someone else to bathe me for the rest of my life," which not only addresses the actual problem, but also includes situations the patient didn't anticipate where they might end up unable to bathe themselves.  It would also tell the patient's medical team where to focus, so they can make a point of trying everything to enable the patient to bathe themselves.

In interviewing the patients to drill down and identify their actual concerns, medical professionals would need to be extremely careful not to be judgemental. They'd need to make very certain to treat every concern as completely valid, and not try to talk patients out of it or even react negatively if the concern sounds petty or shallow or superficial. I know this would be difficult for some corners of the medical profession where people see the direst aspects of the human experience every day and would feel inclined to laugh in the face of "I want to die if I can never again eat recreationally."

But if we can successfully legislate and implement a system where patients choose which aspects of quality of life they see as lifeworthy and deathworthy for themselves with the guidance and support of an empathetic and knowledgeable medical team, that will eliminate many potential problems of mislegislation.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Things They Should Invent: put the sidewalk on the shady side of the street

Some streets (usually small side streets) have a sidewalk on only one side of the street.

There should be a rule that, in cases where they only have one sidewalk for whatever reason, the sidewalk has to be on the side of the street that's shadiest on summer afternoons.

Shade on hot days contributes more to pedestrian comfort than sun on cold days, and summer afternoons are the time of day and time of year that's the hottest.  This can also be a quality of life factor for the most vulnerable people, like the very old, the very young, and those with health problems.

Pedestrians shouldn't have to choose between being safe from cars and being safe from sunstroke. There needs to be some basis for deciding where to put the sidewalk in cases where they don't put one on each side of the street, so why not put it on the side where it will best contribute to quality of life?

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Things They Should Invent: plane crash edition

Reading this article about people who want to take their luggage with them when evacuating plane crashes gives me ideas for a couple of inventions.

1. Public awareness of what happens to plane crash survivors

When later asked to explain their actions, most passengers cited a desire to rescue their money, wallets or credit cards. 
You can see how a person would get there. The idea of being stuck somewhere, maybe in a foreign country, without money, ID or credit cards is scary. So they need a public awareness campaign of what measures are in place to help plane crash survivors in the immediate aftermath and days following. How do they get the medical care they need without their health card or insurance information? What's their legal status if they're in a foreign country but have lost their passport in the plane crash? How do they get home without money or credit cards, and how do they get food and shelter and replacement clothing in the interim? How do they get back into their home country without ID?

There have been enough plane crashes over the years that it seems like there should be a protocol in place for these things. If there is, they should let us know how it works. If there isn't, they should make one and then let us know how it works.

2. Fireproof luggage

The motivation for wanting to take your carry-on bag when evacuating an airplane is that you don't want to lose the contents. Even if insurance gives you money to replace it, you can't just go and buy the teddy bear who's been with you since you were a baby or the discontinued underwear you haven't yet found a comfortable replacement for.

But imagine if the bag was fireproof. You leave it behind, the inferno burns around it, and after the fire has been put out everyone's luggage can be retrieved. You're deprived of your essentials for a few hours, not for the whole rest of your life.

There are fireproof/fire-resistant materials used for firefighters' and astronauts' protective gear, and I'm sure there are other fireproof things in the world of which I'm not even aware. Perhaps that would be a good starting point.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Things I did invent!

For years and years, I've been telling the universe to invent things for me. This week I shut up and invented the things for myself!

1. Since I discovered the Toronto Fire Active Incidents page years ago, I've gotten in the habit of checking it whenever I hear a siren, just to see what's going on. However, not all sirens are the fire department.  So I was going to write a Things They Should Invent that someone should merge the Toronto Fire Calls map and the Toronto Police Calls map (as well as ambulance data, if it is available) into a single "What's that siren?" map.

Making a map isn't in my immediate skill set, but people who are smarter than I am have already turned these data streams into twitter feeds. So I made my very first twitter list, which shows all police and fire calls in near-real time (there's about a 5 minute delay). So now when I hear a siren, I just pull up my list and within moments the answer to my question will appear.

(Although if anyone is feeling ambitious or creative, I still think a map would be a better interface).

2. There was some visible sediment in the reservoir of my coffee maker.  Neither running vinegar through the machine nor rinsing it out would budge it, so I figured it needed to be scrubbed. Unfortunately, since it's only a 4-cup coffee maker, the reservoir is small enough that I can just barely get my hand in and couldn't move it around in the way I needed to to scrub the sediment. A bottle brush wasn't soft enough, and that sponge-on-a-stick thing that's like a bottle brush but with a sponge was too bulky. I thought a q-tip would be about the right size and texture, but I couldn't get my hand in properly to manipulate it the way it needed to be manipulated.

I was going to write a Things They Should Invent of extra-long q-tips for these kinds of cleaning challenges, but then I had an inspiration:

I took a cotton ball (the kind you use to remove makeup or nail polish), stuck it on the end of a fork like it's a meatball, and used that to scrub the inside of the coffee maker reservoir.  The cotton was the right texture, the fork gives it the kind of stiff support you need for scrubbing, and the fork was long enough that I could manipulate the movements of the cotton fully because my hand could be outside the reservoir. The whole thing was perfectly clean in about 20 seconds!

I've never before been able to actually make one of my Things They Should Invent, and this week I made two in one week!

Saturday, July 09, 2016

How to make a manual for new homes

I previously came up with the idea that developers should provide a user manual for new homes.  Today my shower gave me an idea for how that could be achieved effectively.

First of all, the manual wouldn't be an actual static manual, it would be a constantly-updated website, perhaps with a login to limit it to residents of the development if such a thing is thought to be necessary.

Homeowners are asked to report any problems they have to the developer, and the developer will provide free repairs/resolutions/instructions on preventive maintenance required to the first person to report each problem in exchange for being permitted to document it for the manual. 

The homeowner's privacy is protected throughout the process.  While the repair is photographed and videoed so the process can be fully documented, the homeowner doesn't appear in the photos or videos, and the homeowner can remove any identifying items and tidy the area before the documentation people come in.

Since only the first person to report the problem gets the free resolution, the cost to the developer wouldn't be very much, relatively speaking. It would be no more than the total maintenance cost of one unit over its lifetime (minus any repeated maintenance activities), and would probably turn out to be less because not all homeowners would be interested in participating and it's possible that no one would bother to call the developer for certain very basic maintenance activities (e.g. changing a lightbulb).  Given that each development has many units (my condo has nearly 400), and that developers tend to make multiple similar developments (many aspects of my condo operate the same as my apartment, which was built by the same developer), this is negligible compared with the number of customers served.

On top of that, to properly document a procedure with photos and videos you have to actually carry out the procedure.  So developing the manual this way wouldn't cost anything more than staging it for the cameras, and would save the time and effort of planning what should go into the manual, because the natural course of the homeowners' maintenance problems would make that decision for them.

This would be an excellent way for a developer to make customers feel like they're being taken care of, and would make that developer particularly attractive to first-time buyers who are perfectly positioned to start developing brand loyalty.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Things They Should Invent: dog-in-car thermometer

An article about a law in Massachusetts that would allow people to break into hot cars to rescue pets turned up in my social media, and I was surprised to see some commenters complaining about this law. Their complaint was that passers-by might not realize when a dog is perfectly safe and comfortable in an air-conditioned car and break windows unnecessarily.

This made me think of a simple solution: a thermometer inside the car, positioned in such a way that it's easily visible to passers-by through the window.  That way anyone who's concerned about the dog can easily check the temperature. If it's safe, the window won't be broken unnecessarily. If it's dangerous, the dog will be rescued.

If someone wanted to manufacture this as a new product distinctive from ordinary thermometers, they could make thermometers marked with the temperature range that's safe for dogs (and humans), similar to how some fridge thermometers have coloured markings showing the temperature range that's safe for food storage.

They could also enhance the simple window thermometer with smartphone integration.  If the temperature in the car exceeds a certain threshold or rises at a certain rate, you get an alert on your phone telling you that the temperature in the car is becoming unsafe.

Now, I have heard some people say that is absolutely always 100% of the time unsafe to leave a dog in the car no matter what the conditions, and, since I don't have a car, I've never had to become knowledgeable enough to confirm or refute that statement myself.  But the fact remains that there are people who do think it can be safe.  If there was a visible thermometer in the car along with the dog, it would confirm or refute whatever dog owners or car owners or concerned passers-by or meddling internet people might believe about the safety of the situation.  Then we could all take comfort in the fact that passers-by and owners with smartphones will be immediately alerted when dogs are unsafe, and dogs who are safe can be left to enjoy the musical stylings of Steely Dan in peace.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Things They Should Invent: vacuum bags with insecticide inside

This post contains non-graphic descriptions of killing household pests from a phobic point of view.

My severe phobia of bugs means that it is necessary for any bugs in my home to be eliminated, but renders me too squeamish to touch them directly or indirectly.  So my standard approach is to spray the bug with Raid or something similar to kill it, then to vacuum up the corpse.  However, sometimes circumstances make it impossible to spray it with Raid first (if it's on the ceiling, if it's flying around, if I'm startled and the vacuum is closer than the Raid), so I end up vacuuming a live bug.

The internet tells me that the trauma of being vacuumed will kill a bug, and the internet tells me that the trauma of being vacuumed won't kill a bug.  So, as a precautionary measure, if I vacuum a live bug, I spray Raid down the vacuum after it, then block the opening to the vacuum for 24 hours. I've been doing this for 13 years, and have yet to see any evidence that the bugs survive the process.

But it occurred to me in the shower that the makers of vacuum bags could help people like me by selling vacuum bags with insecticide on the inside.  If a bug gets vacuumed up, it is automatically poisoned to death.

In addition to helping people who vacuum up bugs as part of their home pest control approach, this would also help regular people by killing things like bedbugs, fleas, dust mites etc. It would make sure that they get killed in the natural course of housework, resulting in a healthier living environment for everyone.  They could also add antibacterials and germicide to help kill everything before it escapes the vacuum bag.

Some might object to the introduction of additional poisonous chemicals into the household.  However, putting the insecticides inside the vacuum bag would reduce the need to spray them around the home, so they're less likely to end up in the air you breathe or in your food.  On top of that, they can totally continue to sell non-insecticide vacuum bags for people who aren't interested in using their vacuum as a bug-killing machine.

We already have the precedent of introducing not-strictly-necessary chemicals into household cleaning products for psychological purposes.  For example, anti-bacterial toilet cleaners are a thing that exists, even though everyone is going to treat even a freshly-cleaned toilet as a contaminated surface anyway.  So why not give us the option of treated vacuum bags, and address the psychological needs of people with one of the most common phobias?  I'd even gladly pay extra for it!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Things They Should Invent: use hospital volunteers to eliminate the need for patients to have support people

I recently blogged about the problem of the medical system requiring patients to provide their own support people.  In the comments of that post, I realized the solution: use existing hospital volunteer programs to provide support people for patients who don't have their own.

Many, if not most, if not all hospitals already have volunteer programs, complete with established recruitment, screening and training mechanisms, and one or more people whose whole job is to coordinate volunteers and generally make all this happen. They have a whole existing network and infrastructure for finding people who are able and willing to do non-medical tasks in a medical setting at no cost, and they do this every single day as an intrinsic part of the daily operations of the hospital.

Patients don't have anything like this at their disposal. Most people spend only a minute fraction of their lives receiving medical care, so their lives and their networks are not set up to find someone to fill this need.  Some people may well have someone who is able and willing and available, but that's really a fluke convergence of factors and in no way a sound basis for policy.

For the hospital to wash their hands of providing a helper and leave it entirely up to the patient fall under this kind of assholic risk-shifty behaviour we've been trying to coin a good name for.

At this point, some people are probably thinking "But you can't just have some random taking drugged patients home! They could hurt them or abduct them!"  But hospitals already have screening mechanisms for people who work directly with vulnerable patients, as evidenced by the existence of baby cuddling programs. There have been cases of people trying to abduct newborns from hospitals, so the hospital must have a way to screen these volunteers for trustworthiness.  And, again, the hospital, which does this all the time, would most likely have better screening mechanisms than a desperate patient.

And some people are probably thinking "But not all medical procedures are performed in hospitals - some of them are performed in clinics or doctors' offices."  I have three thoughts about that. First, even if hospital volunteers were just used for procedures done in hospitals, that would be an improvement over the status quo of every patient having to find a support person or they can't get their procedure. Second, some doctors and clinics are associated with a certain hospital, so that hospital's volunteers could help those doctors and clinics. Third, they could set up a volunteer program to take care of this need (and any others where volunteers might be helpful) in non-hospital medical contexts. Perhaps this could be done at the LHIN level, by hiring an experienced hospital volunteer coordinator to set up the program.

Of course, there's also the question of whether this should actually be unpaid labour. And I certainly have no objection to making this (and other volunteer duties) a paid role, and being cared for at every step of the process by fully trained, well-paid professionals.  However, the current status quo is that patients are being left to find their own volunteers, and a significant improvement over that status quo would be to use existing volunteer infrastructure rather than leaving patients at the mercy of the vagaries of their personal networks.  People who need medical care don't have time to wait until the government can be convinced to create more jobs.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Things They Should UNinvent: any policy that requires you to have a support person

From a recent Carolyn Hax chat:

Hi, Carolyn. Love your weekly chats! Thanks for all you do! I have to have a (non-emergency but necessary) medical procedure (think a colonoscopy). The facility will not admit me for the procedure unless I am accompanied by someone who will be there for the duration of the procedure and drive me home. I cannot take a cab home, and I cannot arrange for someone to pick me up when I'm ready to go. I'm not married, I don't have kids or other family that could take me, and although I have good friends, none that I feel comfortable asking to take a day off work to sit in an office waiting room with me. So I've repeatedly had to delay the appointment. What do people like me do in this situation? I have a chronic medical condition, and I'm suddenly very depressed about the fact that I have to go through life wondering who is doing to take me to my various appointments. I realize that this is a silly logistical question, but it's really triggered some profound feelings of loneliness and fear, and I'd be interested in your thoughts. Thanks!
This is actually a serious procedural problem in the medical system. The job of the medical system is to take care of you, so it's simply not appropriate for them to require you to bring someone to take care of you. 

You arrive at the doctor's office capable of getting home yourself, so they should release you in a condition where you are capable of getting home yourself.   Maybe they can achieve this by letting you rest in the recover room for longer, maybe by providing you with food and drink or additional medication - they're the medical professionals, they'd know how. To do anything else is simply a failure to care properly for patients. Policies like this should be prohibited.


And you know what? Let's be bold and extend this rule beyond simple medical care.  All aspects of life should be achievable by anyone without a support person, and if they aren't the relevant organizations should change their policies and practices.  Driving schools should organize their standard courses so people can get fully licenced without having to find their own accompanying driver to practice with. Dresses should be designed so the wearer can put them on and do them up completely without help. The school system should be set up so students can be just as successful even if they don't have a supportive parent.

People who, for whatever reason, don't have a someone who is a fully competent adult who speaks the predominant local language and is able to drop everything to help them when needed are already at a disadvantage. Society and its institutions should be set up to mitigate this disadvantage, not reinforce it.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Things Microsoft Word Should Invent (multilingual spellchecking edition)

1. Display all spelling and grammar errors, no matter how much it slows down the program

If your Word document has too many of the red squiggles indicating spelling errors as detected by the spellchecker, it gives you a warning saying there are too many spelling and grammar errors to continue displaying them.  Then all the red squiggles go away and, if you want to spellcheck, you have to select the spellcheck function from the menu and let the spellcheck program crawl the document rather than correcting red squiggles as you go.

The red squiggles are important to my translation process, and not just for spellchecking purposes.  They show me at a glance where I have and haven't translated, as the text in one language is going to be full of red squiggles when the spellchecker is set to the other language.  This is particularly relevant in very long documents (which I don't always translate linearly) and for bilingual documents - which are also the two kinds of documents that are most likely to involve a phase of the translation process where there are too many red squiggles regardless of whether the proofing language is set to the source language or the target language.

So I want a "Show spelling and grammar errors, no matter what, no matter how many there are, no matter how much it slows down the program" option. Just give me my red squiggles - I'll wait! And if I find it is in fact too slow, I can turn them off, and then turn them back on when I particularly need them.

(Yes, I know you're supposed to be able to mark different sections of the document as different languages or tell Word not to spellcheck a certain section, but in practice I find those functions are hit and miss.  Sometimes I tell it over and over again that the left column is English and the right column is French, or that I don't want it to spellcheck the first six pages, but it just doesn't take.  Same with turning the red squiggles back on after I've translated the whole document - sometimes it just says there are too many spelling and grammar errors without even recounting.  I suppose another option would be to make these functions work reliably.)

2. Add phrases to the spellcheck dictionary

In some circumstances, for certain combinations of genre, context and audience, I have to leave official names in the source language rather than translating them into English. Of course, this means they show up as errors in my spellchecking, even though they're not.

I want to be able to add these official names to the spellcheck dictionary, so it doesn't give them red squiggles and corrects them if I make a typo.  However, I don't want to add the individual words to the dictionary, because taken individually they would still be untranslated words and/or typos. I just want spellcheck to recognize the phrase. For example, I want it to recognize that "Ministère des Affaires municipales et de l'Occupation du territoire" is supposed to be there, but the individual words "ministère" and "affaires" and "municipales" and "territoire", when they don't appear in that exact phrase, are not supposed to be there.   

Computers can do this. Search functions have "whole words only" or "exact phrase only" options. And the error detection aspect of spellchecking is basically a search function (i.e. find all the words on this list, then put red squiggles under all the other words). So they should be able to create this option and thereby help reduce the risk of making typos when some words are in another language that hasn't lived in the user's fingers for as long.