It Sells Itself

Centrum vitamins and Red Bull should combine to make an energy drink aimed at seniors. The name: Fossil Fuel.


Slot-Loading Record Player

Where I’m sitting right now, I can see the row of vinyl anchoring our bookshelves. Some great stuff in there.

All lined up with no place to play.

All lined up with no place to play.

I can also see our turntable, not hooked up, trapped in a cabinet that does not allow access enough to open the turntable’s lid. Then it hit me. There’s no need for special cabinet modifications and sliding drawers just to put a circular disc onto a spindle. CD Players have been managing that problem since the very beginning.

If I had a slot-loading turntable, I’d be good to go. I did a brief search for such a thing, and apparently they exist for 45’s, but the only one I found that might work for LPs was a dead link. But with today’s entertainment furniture, it seems like a no-brainer.

While we’re at it, perhaps we could replace the needle with a laser, and extend the lives of our precious vinyl albums.


The Class Action Channel

Sometime back in the dark ages a friend came back from Japan and said, “They have a TV channel there that is only advertising! People tune in just to watch ads!”

I was befuddled. In the United States, that tradition was, back then, reserved for the Super Bowl. (Hm… maybe not even then. This was before 1984.)

Now of course we have QVC, an enormously successful company that has television channels devoted simply to advertising. And people watch.

But that’s product advertising. Unscientifically, I think half the ads I blip past fall into two categories: new medical therapies (mostly drugs), and law firms suing companies for the side effects of the new medical therapies.

With all those dollars being spent, and the country getting older and frankly more cranky, doesn’t it make sense to have the Class Action Channel? “Call in the next fifteen minutes to get in on the ground floor of this major lawsuit! Lyon and Lyin’ have a proven history of corporate blackmail, but you only benefit if you sign up before the settlement. And for the next five minutes we’ll add a bonus Lyon and Lyin’ mouse pad, even if you’re not qualified for the settlement!”

It’s gonna happen.

Regular Guy Sports Network

Sports broadcasting is changing, and the fan is the winner. Now let’s give the fan even more control.

Consider this article by Bill Barnwell at You don’t have to read the whole article, but there are two key messages: television will not be the best way to consume sports in the near future, and Barnwell is willing to pay $20,000 to not hear the announcers.

That second tidbit was presented as a little bit of humor at the end of his article, but he’s missed the greater opportunity: not only can we happily marginalize the network announcers, we can choose commentators more to our liking. Enter the Regular Guy Sports Network.

There’s not much sadder than the partially-clothed American male sinking ever-further into his sofa cushions as he watches sports on his television. Alone. Or maybe there’s a group of people with no charismatic nucleus. Or just some guy who can’t stand the voice of Bob Costas. What if, with with a few button-presses, our Costas-hater is able to surround himself with a crew of wise-cracking pals? They love the home team as much as he does, they rip on the calls that go against them, they say inappropriate things about the opposing star player. They shred Costas. It’s pretty clear they’re drunk, and talking around Cheetos. Just like real friends would be.

With digital media, it’s a free market. It’s a way for aspiring comedians and articulate fanatics to get an audience. I tune in to the game, but I choose the regular guys that will be in my living room with me. My pals.

When I first thought of Regular Guy Sports Network, it was a digitally-enabled extension of current network broadcasts. Now I wonder, “who needs those guys?” The technology is there, all I need is a directory service to hook me up with my new sports buddies, and a way to keep their words in synch with what I’m watching. Easy peasy.

So come on, RGSN, make it happen!

Money for Nothin’ and Watts for Free

Think about your average solar collector. Even if you have no idea how the dang things work, you know that:

  • They are flat
  • They are black
  • They don’t work in the shade.

What else fits that description? With a few exceptions on the shade angle, the world has a lot of asphalt baking in the sun. A lot. Anyone who’s gone barefoot in the summer knows how hot a street can get. With that much surface area, you would only have to convert a tiny fraction of the solar flux into useable energy to make a huge difference.

So, come on, science (or maybe this is one for the engineers), give us a way to turn all those square miles of asphalt into cheap, low-efficiency solar collectors.

Rethinking Apertures

This is filed under the long-neglected ‘Get Poor Quick’ category, but the means of getting poor follows a discussion of camera lenses in general, with an emphasis on bokeh. Follow me and we’ll turn the whole industry on its head!

I was futzing around with the ol’ camera today, playing with my MIR-24, an older lens in which the Russians one-upped the prestigious German lens they were copying. I wasn’t trying for great photography, I was getting to know my lens by taking a bunch of pictures. It’s a fun lens when one has the time to manually get the focus just right. Here’s one of the shots I took (click to biggerize):


One of the things I like about this shot is the way the fore- and background are interesting without being distracting. I took the shot with the lens wide open, which narrows the range that is in focus, and makes the foreground and background nicely blurry.

Different lenses will blur things differently; the quality of the blur is referred to with a word bastardized from Japanese, “bokeh”. Good bokeh is often described as “smooth”, while “jittery” is often used to describe bad bokeh.

But neither of those words actually describes what qualities make bokeh good or bad, just how it makes us feel. There is one generally-accepted reason bokeh is good or bad, and two others that are just as important but are not mentioned nearly often enough. I’m here to straighten that all out. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

So let’s think for a moment about what blur actually is. An image is blurred when light from one point in the subject covers more than one point in the image. Think about pictures where lights in the background turn into little circles. Or, if you don’t want to take the trouble to think, here’s an example:


Note that points of light in the background of the above image are turned into circles. This is a projection of the aperture onto the camera sensor. If you look really closely, in fact, you will see that they are not quite perfect circles, but rounded octagons. The lens I was using has an eight-blade aperture control.

[Side note: When I’m watching TV now, I always take an interest in the shape of distant lights during night scenes. I bet an experienced cinematographer could tell you exactly what lens is being used just by that shape.]

Everyone agrees: the rounder the aperture, the smoother the bokeh. This is mostly true, but it’s far from the whole story. Here’s a look down the barrel of my MIR-24:


The aperture is a hexagon, and not a terribly symmetric one at that. So, as the lens is stopped down (the aperture is closed) the bokeh will start to look edgy, and the dots from distant lights will be hexagonal. (The shot of the critters above was with the aperture all the way open; the blades are pulled out of the way entirely and the aperture is a nice perfect circle.)

Before we go on, let’s have some fun with aperture shapes!

Just because there’s an aperture control inside the lens, doesn’t mean we have to use it! Here I shoot with my beloved 85mm f/1.2, wide open in all these shots. But in the second shot, I’ve added my own homemade aperture in the shape of a triangle. (I wanted to do a fancier shape, but I’m not that good with the x-acto.)

You can get kits with all sorts of fun shapes, or you can get a camera lens with my new idea built right in. (Well, you might have to wait a while for option b.) Read on!

Back to bokeh. We have the generally-agreed-upon axiom that round apertures make better bokeh. But there’s another factor: The structure of the dots themselves. Some lenses produce nice, even dots, while others produce dots with a bright rim around the outside. And you can see that my homemade triangle aperture produced pretty significant ghosting. Both those things will add to the general unpleasantness of the blurry parts of your photos. So don’t assume that that old lens with the 20-blade aperture that’s nearly a perfect circle at any f-stop will automatically give you good bokeh.

Then there’s the one factor that no lens can compensate for (yet…). Sometimes the subject matter just doesn’t blur well. Here’s a picture that demonstrates a couple of annoying bokeh traits even when the lens is doing its job relatively well:


The first bokeh annoyance is the fungus in the background. The fungus is very structural, but the way it blurs just doesn’t feel natural. Behind the fungus things get muddled but also don’t feel quite natural. To see why the blur came out the way it did, consider the blade of grass that goes diagonally behind the flower. It is blurred into a perfect, straight, well-defined, sharp-edged area of doubt and uncertainty. All the things that go into a traditional aperture to create “good” bokeh sometimes produce a result that doesn’t feel natural. Lines get exaggerated rather than softened. The line of the grass becomes a line of circles, the light evenly distributed.

The big distracting leaf in the foreground cannot be blamed on the lens, alas. You have no idea how many different crops I tried to get that MF-er out of there.

OK, we’ve finally made it to the get-poor-quick part of this episode. You see, I have come up with a way to control the aperture of the lens that solves ALL the above problems: the aperture can be perfectly circular at any f-stop, or it can have any shape the photographer wants.

The blur in a traditional lens has hard edges because the aperture has hard edges. Metal blades close and open to allow more or less light into the lens. But what if the aperture were not hard-edged? What if the hole that let light through tapered off in opacity toward the edges? Those circles projected onto the sensor would taper as well, softening the edges of the circles, and therefore softening the bokeh. It would look fantastic.

All we have to do is get rid of those dang metal blades and replace them with a ridiculously high-resolution grid of pixels that can be set on a continuum from completely transparent to utterly opaque. The rest is software.

I know that is easier said than done, and even with the march of digital progress the resolution required for this project (a couple of orders of magnitude better than what we could do now – getting down to an almost atomic scale) is a long way away. Or maybe, (better yet!), it’s not digital at all and an electric field could be applied to a film of material that controlled its opacity.

Eventually a system like this will be far cheaper to manufacture than a mechanism with servos and metal blades, and it will add a softness to pictures that can only be dreamt of today.


Another Product for Parents

If I had teen-aged children, I’d pay to have a phone-jamming device installed in my cars.

Filed under Get-Poor-Quick because most parents would not want to be prevented from using the phone and texting while driving, either.

Facts Suck

I had a get-poor-quick scheme all put together in my head, the result of musing while flossing and thinking “there has to be a better way!” I thought I was just a little bit of genetic engineering away from perfect teeth forever.

Foolishly, I actually went and looked up some facts before I wrote up the post. I’ll not be making that mistake again! Holy crap facts are the last thing I needed, and not really in keeping with the get-poor-quick ethos.

I did learn that the surface of your teeth is host to an amazingly complex and adaptable ecosystem with 1000 different kinds of bacteria, forming a complex structure that changes as time passes. My little genetically modified tooth scrubbers wouldn’t stand a chance; there’s nothing I could invent that’s not already in there and part of the system.


Hang on, I’ll get back to you on this after I don’t check some more facts.

*Sigh* Back to flossing.

Say What?

My hearing isn’t what it used to be. In ideal circumstances it’s still plenty good enough; I tend to like the TV volume a bit lower than my sweetie, for instance.

Add background noise and that changes in a hurry. My ability to filter noise from signal was never that good, I think (recalling people having conversations with bursts of static on their CB radios), but thirty-five years of rock and roll and twenty-five years of highway driving with the top down have taken their toll. Now when my sweetie is by the sink with the tap running I’m lucky if I can tell she’s speaking at all. Forget about understanding her words.

Recently I was on an airplane and every time I tried to speak with the attendant I had to repeat myself. I could understand her, but she couldn’t understand me. The difference? I was wearing noise-canceling headphones. Even with the big cans over my ears I could hear her much more easily, and so naturally I responded in a lower voice than necessary. A nice reversal of the person-with-headpohones-on-talking-loudly joke.

If I wore those big-ass headphones around the house, I’d probably miss fewer things that my sweetie said. I’d hear more while driving as well, though wearing those things would undoubtedly get me pulled over.

What I need, then, are nice little inserts like a hearing aid, but while hearing aids amplify the signal, these would simply reduce the noise. My hearing without noise is plenty good enough, thank you.

I mentioned in an episode a while back that if I ran an airline, I’d have all my on-aircraft personnel fitted for items like this, both for their health and for more efficient service on-plane. So this isn’t a brand-spanking-new idea. I just can’t find a product that actually does this. I don’t even think this is a get-poor-quick scheme. I suspect the pattern of my hearing degradation is pretty dang typical, and all the technology already exists to make these things. The market could potentially be huge.

So, someone make me my earplugs already!


Dust in the Wind = Opportunity

While driving through southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle, I noticed that the horizon was brown — the air is as dingy and grim as the air in Los Angeles ever was. It is tinged with particulate pollution that at one time was part of one of the richest topsoil systems on the planet. Now our soil is floating on the breeze, not doing anyone any good.

It’s time to do something about it.

Back in the prairie days, before the plow reached the plains, there was grass to hold down the soil. Then came farmers and soon after came the dust bowl. When there wasn’t enough rain, crops withered and the desiccated soil was exposed to the wind. These days, the main reason we don’t have more dust bowls is irrigation. Mighty pumps draw water from below the surface and spray it on the crops. This is still not as effective at erosion control as the prairie grasses were, and the activities of farming just plain raise a lot of dust. Not much one can do about it.

Or is there? What if we could do something about the other element in a dust storm — the wind? Slow the wind down and the air won’t be able to carry as much particulate matter. If we can slow down the wind enough, we might even begin to accumulate soil from less-enlightened neighbors.

Oh, I hear you now: “Hold the phone, there, Sunshine! Slow down the wind?” Yeah, it sounds crazy, I know, but in fact we already have machines that slow down the wind, and as a special bonus they give us electricity. Yep, windmills are machines that take energy out of the air and turn it into juicy, useful, power. There are already wind farms popping up in Kansas, giant pylons standing in neat rows across the very fields that are losing topsoil to the wind.

The difficulty with the current setup is that the windmills are put way up in the air, where there is less interaction with ground winds. This is done on purpose, as the giant rotors’ primary purpose is electricity, not erosion control, and the wind is steadier up there. (Also, it makes sense to get those giant rotors up where they won’t be whacking into things.) For this job we’re going to need windmills closer to the ground, which probably means many smaller windmills. Since efficiency at generating electricity is no longer the top priority, we can put them closer together. Each will generate less electricity, but the rows of them will make a more effective windblock.

How much do windmills slow down the air? I’m not really sure, but I’ve heard about habitats being affected downwind from them. It’s all a matter of taking enough energy out of the system.

That might be enough to make a difference, but we can add a low-tech modification to our fields to deflect the wind up off the ground and into the whirling blades. Simple scoop-shaped fences, perhaps configured in V shapes, can funnel the air whooshing along the ground up and into the windmills. More electricity, even less soil erosion. I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the water needed for the crops was reduced as well. Less water per acre means more land can be irrigated, which means more food.

The fence system assumes that wind usually comes from the same general direction; I imagine that when the wind is blowing parallel to the fences they might do more harm than good. Judging by the way the wind farms are set up, I think the direction is pretty steady, however. The V-shaped fences may prove to be a hassle for the farmer; modern machinery likes straight lines and big circles. Perhaps the fences could be replaced by long rows of grape vines. They would be less efficient at deflecting the wind but they would provide a significant additional crop. Another type of food makes the farmer less vulnerable to crop-specific pests and to random market swings.

I picture the ideal field as having some of the giant turbines to slow down the air up above, with rows of closely-spaced windmills below to slow the surface wind. Air moving over the field would be slowed enough that it’s carrying capacity was reduced, and rather than picking up sediment would deposit some of what it was already carrying instead. Free dirt!

The cool thing about this get-poor-quick scheme is that while it may not have the same immediate return on investment of a traditional wind farm, the watts per acre will be pretty high. Assuming energy prices keep climbing, it could even pay for itself. Then, when the aquifer runs out and the dust bowl returns, maybe America will still be able to feed itself.

When is a Plant not a Plant?

You’re probably aware that the US government is spending huge amounts of money to support production of biofuel. What they tell you is that this fuel will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and that it is better for the environment. It turns out, at least the way that biofuel is produced now, that neither claim is true. It takes more energy to produce the biofuel than it produces, and our topsoil is taking a beating. Add on top of that the finite amount of water that we’re pulling from wells across the midwest and ask yourself the question: would you rather run out of oil or run out of farmland?

Granted there are many plants that are much better candidates for creating biofuel than corn, the main crop used now, and even corn production could be made more efficient and less destructive to the soil. Still, perhaps it’s time to step back and look at the actual problem we are trying to solve. A better solution just might present itself.

What we are trying to do is make solar energy portable. Plants do that using photosynthesis — they put some carbon dioxide and some water next to each other and wait for a photon to whack the system just right, and out comes an energetic molecule, and some nice free oxygen to boot. It’s a pretty slick system. What we are doing now is using plants as solar collectors. We set them out in the sun, give them access to (lots of) water and carbon dioxide, and later we chop them down and collect the energy. Of course, the form of the energy isn’t quite right (sugars aren’t good fuel), so we have to process the result, using up some of the energy we collected.

The goal, then, is to turn sunshine into gasoline, alcohol, or some other handy hydrocarbon.

Flash back to when you were in grade school science class, watching a movie about how plants work. We zoom down into the animated land beneath the surface of the leaf where the magic is happening. A little wizard is hard at work, gathering the ingredients, then… at the critical moment he gawps at the camera, eyes round, and pulls a screen in front of his workbench. “We don’t know what happens back there,” the narrator says in his happy-narrator voice, “but what comes out is…” (I don’t remember exactly what comes out. ATP? You can look it up.)

Bumblebees. Photosynthesis. Great mysteries when we were kids, but not anymore. (Did no one mention to you that bumblebees can fly now? They have tiny horizontal tornadoes raging just above their wings. Sometimes the explanation is even cooler than the mystery.) Anyway, photosynthesis. Somehow, films made before DNA had been discovered still have us convinced that some things are unknown. I’m no photosyntholigist, but I only have to glance at wikipedia to know that the process is pretty well-understood today.

So I ask you: Do we really need the plant? We know how that stuff works, and we can reproduce it. Can we not create a solid-state device that captures solar energy and puts out an energetic molecule – the exact molecule we want as an end product? We could use such a device to create fuels with absolutely no impurities (no sulfur, for instance), and no net carbon footprint. The system does not have to be very efficient to easily outdistance existing plant-based methods, and it would use land that has much less value in terms of ongoing human prosperity. Farms could go back to growing food.

Picture a gas station on the highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Behind it there is an array of dark panes stretched over the desert floor. From the array a pipe leads to a holding tank which holds the highest-quality gasoline money can buy. And the cost to the dealer is fixed – he just has to pay to maintain the system.

There would be environmental impact, of course. Vast tracts of desert would be shaded, and somewhat cooler as a result of energy being removed from the system. Although our machine would use a lot less water than a living plant, (or perhaps another source of hydrogen?), there would still be some demand. Overall, though, I think environmentalists would see it as a lesser evil.

I’ve been kicking this idea around for years, now, but apparently I haven’t ever written about it here. The plan is filed under get-poor-quick, but man, if anybody got something like this working, they could become some kind of ridiculously wealthy. As well they should.


Need More Computing Power

I’m working with several products from Adobe corporation right now. That means several things: first, getting used to various ‘quirks’ in the user interface that no other company does the same way. I occasionally say, “There’s the Mac way, the Windows way, and the Adobe way.” The Adobe way doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in different Adobe products, alas.

Second, running multiple products from Adobe, along with their infamous memory leaks, means that my little Mac Mini is severely challenged. Adobe makes big products, and seems much more worried about features than performance. I have an income (made in part from using Adobe products), and can justify upgrading hardware at some point, but then what happens to the old machine? There’s still plenty of computing left in the little guy. It’s actually pretty fast.

Then it occurred to me that the perfect answer would be a second mini just like the first, that I could connect in such a way that they could share the workload. Suddenly my upgrade gets a lot cheaper and I’m not getting rid of a perfectly good computer.

I know that there is a supercomputer built from a bazillion macs all hooked together and sharing the load, so why can’t I get some of that action? What would it take to get two macs hooked together to become a single computer? It seems just too damn obviously a good thing to not exist.

I’m filing this under Get-Poor-Quick Schemes, since it’s probably one of those ideas that looks good on paper but is in fact a major PITA. Still, what a great OS feature that would be.

Fortune Cigarettes

There’s a Santa Fe tradition called Zozobra, in which old man gloom is incinerated, along with all his negative baggage. There are many other similar traditions aound the world. But here’s a way to bring that idea into your everyday life. Wouldn’t it be cool if when you smoked a cigarette you were burning negaive thoughts at the same time? I don’t smoke, but it would almost be worth it to ritually burn the things that bother me.

Enter cigarettes with extra printing on them, negative things that you conquer by burning them. You can buy the regular pack with random messages or you can custom-order with your own personal nemeses. Sure the custom ones would cost a lot more, but that alone might provide incentive to cut back, while making the occasional smoke a poetic act. There must be a brand of cigarette that markets to the black-beret crowd that would make a killing off this.

Plus, it would be a kick to write the ill-fortunes.


fuego and I were sitting in a bar this afternoon, plotting our next step in World Domination (mwa-ha-ha-ha), when a drunk woman arrived at the bar and sat next to a guy. Eventually the guy scooted over to get away from her… and landed right next to a pretty woman. They struck up a conversation that went on for at least an hour, filled with smiles. All thanks to the drunk girl.

fuego thought about that for a bit and came up with “rent-a-drunk”. Need a little push to get you closer to that pretty girl? Call rent-a-drunk! It’s a special sort of wing-man who is never connected with you. I took the idea further; there are definite chivalry points to be scored. Want to meet that lovely woman? Rent-a-Drunk will send an asshole her way, and you can stand him down, perhaps at apparent personal risk. Can you say knight in shinig armor?

So now you have a chance to charm the woman of your desires. The thing is, if you use a plan like this, you’re probably a jerk, and if she finds that out you’re sunk. No problem. Any time the conversation gets uncomfortable, with a hand signal the drunk is back, and you can dominate him again.

If everything else fails, at least he can drive you home.

Making Money Dishing Out Shame

More about sports.

It occurs to me as I sit here that there is one side of me That Girl has not really met. That particular me is the one who likes to watch sports on TV. There are times it’s nice to sit and watch a game. This afternoon was one such time.

I don’t get much on my little TV at home, and although there were a couple of sports options, it was all motorsport. There are some activities that are by far more fun to do than watch, and driving is one of them. Oddly, golf is in that category as well. Happliy, the Budvar Bar Near Home has: 1) cheap beer, and 2) sports on TV.

The Budvar Bar Near Home had one major strike against it: It was closed. Hmm… As I mentioned my my previous episode, it is Sunday, and this is Strasnice.

I am now at U Slamu, until recently the home of breaded and fried pork stuffed with bacon and cheese. (That lament can wait for another day.) They still have beer, however, and they have sports on TV.

When one gets one’s tv sports fix this way, one can’t be too picky about what one gets. When I came in it was English Premier League Football. (Don’t be fooled by the name: it’s soccer.) When I first arrived there was some controversy going on, and then they showed a replay, and a new drinking game came to me.

Depending on the match, there are five to twenty cases of someone falling down at the slightest contact (or no contact at all) and feigning terrible injury. It is, I’m told, part of the game. That may be true, but it’s a part of the game that sucks. For a well-covered match, the “contact” is shown many times from many angles, and the game I propose is this: create a dvd of these terrible, life-threatening injuries, and freeze them at the moment the player is just starting to throw himself to the turf, his eyes bugging out and his mouth wide open. Stop the action right there and have everyone guess: What body part is he going to hold as he rolls on the ground in agony? One point for a correctly predicted ankle, maybe two for a thigh, but the gambling types might want to try to score the big money with a shoulder.

For the sake of propriety, no players would be shown who actually left the game. But there would be slow-motion appreciation of the acting skills of the rest.

What’s great about this game is that it can be a subscription service. People will want to download the latest week’s floppers and crybabies to play the game over and over. Certain players would, no doubt, earn a cult following among players. “All right! It’s Jones again! He’s down! Oh, the agony! This time it must be serious. Just look at his face!” As a special bonus, maybe some of the players who showed up regularly would discover a little pride and play the game on their feet rather than on their backs.

A chance to make some money and shame some of the world’s best-paid babies at the same time? Sign me up!