Category: ideas

Speculative ideas

Idea: steampunk clock

Have the time displayed by colored liquids in glass tubes, either a column of liquid or a large segment. The time tube can be straight or circular.

Move the liquid by a mechanism where brass gears compress a bellows. The brass mechanism would be driven by a microcontroller.

New public health measures

Could new measures substantially improve public health?

What would be the effect if, say, 90% of the country wore filter masks for one week, and concentrated on washing hands?

Infection is a chain, one individual infects one or more others, and an infection gets passed on. That is how disease persists–for most infectious agents, not in one person for months on end, but passed serially every few months as an individual gets infected, and over a few weeks mounts an immune response and fights it off.

An infectious agent requires a basic reproduction factor, an R0, of more than one. If R0 > 1, an infection is growing more common, if R0 < 1, an infection is disappearing. For more diseases, for infection to persist it must spread.

Currently there are constant but weak efforts to reduce the spread of infection–encouraging the sick to stay home and hand washing. Vaccines for influenza. But what if a serious effort was made? A big effort could not be sustained, at least not in the US culture.

But what would be the effect of a large, short effort? If infection transmission can be stomped down for a short period, but long enough to break the chain of infection, it might have a large effect on public health. I wonder if this has been modeled?

App game idea

Flip it

This game board is an array of tiles. The tiles have letters. The game play involves flipping a pair of letters, as if the two tiles can move through the screen on the axis that connects them. In any case, they move switches them. The goal is to rearrange the tiles to spell words.

cat --flip c:a--> act
dog ------------> dog

cat --flip c:d--> dat
dog ------------> cog

The game can be played different sized boards, and with boards with cutouts.
Variation 1: Have the tiles have both color and a letter, to distinguish common letters.
Variation 2: Have the tiles be two sided, so that flipping them exposes the other sides.

What is interesting about this is that it is a class of games easy to implement in the computer but which is hard or impossible to implement as a physical game. There is a whole class of variations on pen and pencil or board games that haven’t been tried because of this!

App Ideas

Idea 1:

Laser level. Ther are apps that use the orientation sensor in the phone to turn it into a level. Take it a step further. Combine hte orientation sensor and the phone to show a live camera view but draw a level line on it.

This can be taken further (if the phone is accurate enough), to draw a ‘same’ height line on the camera view, useful for hanging pictures and checking the level of things.

Idea 2:

Novelty ‘which protein is your name in’. Check human proteome first for good matches, then orangatang, pig, rat, bacteria. Show the protein sequence with the name highlighted, and a picture of the organism.

Allow the user to send this in an email or post on FB.

Ideas for using gut microbes

I went to a panel that discussed gut microbes at Chicon, and had a few ideas for making use of them:

1) Microbes as sensors. Take existing gut bacteria, electroporate in a reporter plasmid, reintroduce orally. The reporter can be a sensor protein hooked up to GFP or an enzyme that acts on a microbial product to make a derivative not found normally in bacteria, and easily detectable and distinguished from normal chemicals in the gut.
1a) Detection can be by examining poop. A souped up Japanese toilet would be the least obtrusive solution.
1b) if the product is fluorescent, detection can be by direct gut imaging, as is done for mice.

2) Introduce GFP producing bacterial into the gut, and use them like barium is used for gut imaging. Imaging would be done using transilluminated epifluorescence microscope or a fluorescence light box
and thermoelectrically cooled CCD camera. By moving the detector and light source around, enough images can be made for low resolution computed tomographic imaging.

3) Introduce gut bacteria that absorb methane. Natural methane absorbing bacteria, normally present in low numbers can be introduced to increase total gut methane absorbtion, or if methane absorbtion happens at low levels, bacteria could be selected to find strains that do it at a higher level. A third option is to engineer normal gut bacteria to have this capability.

Extra-science news

I would like a source for science news articles that actually has the science. Biology articles that include gene names and what a study actually found. Stories that describe things with the correct technical terms, not ‘the internet is like a series of tubes’. News stories written at an old-time Scientific American level, at the level of medical or graduate school alumni magazines. Stories that link to the journal article, to the institution or lab’s page, the patent, that link to Wikipedia or a relevant site for background.

What I would really like a source that linked standard news accounts of science to an extra-science version of the news. This site could write the extra-science article, but no need for redundancy–if some other site has an account with the relevant details then this site would just link to it. ars technica’s Nobel Intent science news site often does the job, but of course they only cover some of the news and don’t provide the nexus–linking the weak tea news stories to their articles.

The nexus should facilitate the connection. Allow the user to enter the news site URL, story title, or a sentence of text and recognize the story and link to the extra-science article. Standard keyword searching would be useful as well. The Reeves lab had an almost perfect example of the empty science news story taped up: ‘Scientists clone brain gene. This discovery will lead to an understanding of how the brain works.’

Phonic bestiary

There are many things that go bump in the night, and more that put up an awful clamor. It would be interesting to put a microphone outside, pipe it to a computer, and have the computer identify what’s out there. Many animals make distinctive, repetitive calls of the sort that should be recognizable by fairly simple audio analysis. The cricket, cicada, and frogs, to name a few.

So put a microphone outside, pipe the data in by cord, or wireless internet, and record and analyze it. Run it first through Fourier analysis and then identify duration/frequency patterns. Calls with a certain pitch lasting for a certain interval. Some calls are more complex, a chord, a pattern of notes, etc. Calls range from simple insect calls to complex bird calls. Then run repetitive patterns found through a species identification algorithm.

The output would indicate what animals were detected and at what times, and perhaps record audio samples of each type. This sort of data collected routinely each night would give a dynamic picture of the fauna of an area. Crickets at night, birds at daybreak.

If many people used this software and sent data to a central collection point, it could be used to monitor animal range and abundance, and perhaps indicate aspects of regional and year to year variation by detecting what species appear and when each emerges after winter.

Some work has already been done on the software end of this. Here are papers on bird calls, bird calls, and insect recognition.

Cooling a cooler

Can a solar panel be used to cool a beer cooler? The lid of a picnic cooler is big enough to hold a typical 20W solar panel ($60).

How much energy does it take to keep a cooler cold?
Heat conduction Q/ Time = (Thermal conductivity) x (Area) x (Thot – Tcold)/Thickness

Equation from here.

I couldn’t find specifications for cooler insulation. I guess picnicers don’t ask. Figures for styrofoam are available, figure 2 in. of styrofoam. Styrofoam has a thermal conductivity of 0.033 W/m°C (or here).

Let’s assume air temp of 90F, cooler temp of 40F, that gives a delta T of 28 °C.

Heat flows in through the walls of the cooler. A cooler has an internal surface area of about a foot on each of six sides, 6 sq ft, about 0.67 m2.

Plug the figures in, the cooler heats up at rate of 12 Watts an hour. So 12W of cooling should keep it cold.

So the 20W solar panel powering a Peltier cooler with heat sinks inside and outside the cooler should be able to keep a picnic cooler cold during the day. The solar panel will provide less power when the sun isn’t overhead. The Peltier cooler is inefficient, figure 50% efficiency, effectively 10W of cooling when it gets 20W of solar power. Peltier coolers also have a peak temperature difference of about 20°C, so poor heat exchangers will cut its effectiveness.

Extra heating by the having the cooler sitting in the sun, or not enough sunlight on the solar panel, or opening the cooler will decrease the system effectiveness. Perhaps it would only cool the contents to 50°F.

This assumes that the cooler starts cold. This system does not have the power to cool down a room temperature cooler full of liquid. Figuring two and a half gallons of liquid (10 l) in the cooler, it would take nearly a day to cool it from 90°F down to 40°F running off a battery or wall current.

The limits of Peltier cooling is a delta T of about 60°C, achieved by sandwiching several layers of coolers together. A small 4 in. square chamber surrounded by 3-4 inches of Styrofoam only needs one Watt of cooling. Sandwiched Peltier coolers are inefficient. At a guess, the same 20W solar panel would work. At night, the chamber would heat up at a rate of about 1°C an hour, reaching say -15°C at dawn. So small scientific samples could be frozen in a portable, off-grid cooler of this type.

Messing with digestion

There are several dietary products that try to minimize the calories absorbed in the GI tract. One was a non-absorbable fat, Olestra. The fat just runs through the GI tract with a side effect of diarrhea and occasional worse effects. There are also drugs that keep fat from being absorbed: Xenical, a drug that inhibits intestinal lipase and slows the breakdown and absorbtion of fat. Alli is a low dose of the same drug available OTC.

There are also several types of fiber sold as fat-trappers. It’s not clear whether they work, but they also have the same side effects as fat blockers.

There are other ideas that have been tried. Stimulants like amphetamines work fairly well with some well known side effects. So far, drugs that mess with the regulation of appetite haven’t worked well–the regulation has too many redundant pathways.

Rather than blocking fat, how about using enzymes to breakdown either sugars or fats? The simplest approach would be to use enzymes, I’m sure suitable ones could be found, grown in E. coli, isolated and taken as gel caps. To keep the proteins from getting denatured by stomach acids, a coated or time release capsule could be used. A second step would be to engineer the enzymes to resist digestion–synonomous substitutions and so on. Another possibility would be to express the enzymes as secreted proteins in a gut bacterium–one of the ones that mainly lives in the jejunum. The bacteria could be ingested in pills the way probiotics are.

A more difficult implementation would be to non-protein enzymes to digest sugar or fat. This would be harder to engineer but likely more effective.

Which enzymes? Well, that would take some study. Likely a two or three would be needed to break down the metabolite and then waste any ATP formed.

L-system Iterator

I’ve put up a web site for exploring L-system images, L-system Iterator.

Well known L-systems

The snowflake shape is only one example of the pictures that can be drawn this way.

L-systems are simple iterated drawing rules. Simple rules for turning and drawing put together in this way make quite interesting and complicated patterns. The ones shown above are well known. From the the left, the Koch snowflake, the Sierpinski triangle, a kolam-like image, and a plant-like image. On the second row, the Heighway dragon, the Hilbert curve, and another plant.

The Heighway dragon has many interesting properties–for example, it can be tiled over the plane.

Some iterated objects are fractals–the Koch snowflake, Sierpinski triangle, and Hilbert curve are famous simple fractals.

L-systems can be quite complicated. The systems modeled on my web site use a single rotation angle and only one line width. More complicated models can make surprisingly realistic plants. Prusinkiewicz and Lindenmayer (the L in L-system) have developed detailed plant models.

The web site is based on the Perl code I wrote for my Biomorph evolution/selection web site. The images are generated using Postscript to draw the L-system, and then the ImageMagick convert program to change it to a PNG image. Images are given a file name that describes the L-system, effectively caching the image. The Prototype Javascript library is used to assist in making the popup boxes.

Each L-system variant has two changes from the current L-system. Some logic is used to keep the L-system in the same family–if there’s no Y equation, one isn’t added. Existing equations are grown or shrunk but not dropped. These images can take much longer to generate than the Biomorph images, so a number of limits are placed to keep the L-system from getting too complicated or taking too much CPU time.

The hardest part of the Postscript was getting the images scaled and centered appropriately. The images can extend in any direction and some are large, others small. The centering code generates the image twice, once to find out its dimensions and then a second time scaled and centered. Here’s the code to record the dimensions of each part of the image. It gets called before each stroke operation.

/max_path {
gsave initmatrix pathbbox grestore

ur_y false eq { /ur_y exch store } { dup ur_y gt { /ur_y exch store } { pop } ifelse } ifelse
ur_x false eq { /ur_x exch store } { dup ur_x gt { /ur_x exch store } { pop } ifelse } ifelse
ll_y false eq { /ll_y exch store } { dup ll_y lt { /ll_y exch store } { pop } ifelse } ifelse
ll_x false eq { /ll_x exch store } { dup ll_x lt { /ll_x exch store } { pop } ifelse } ifelse
} def

The ‘initmatrix’ command is required to reset things because of all the rotation operations.

The code for the site is linked on the L-system iterator home page.

Update: Added color variation as an option. And a reverse direction primitive.

Also, the code now runs under mod_perl.

Note for mod_perl users–mod_perl 2.0 has no way of handling alarms. select() doesn’t work either as a way of timing out pipes. The only usable method is prepending commands with ‘ulimit -t secs’ and letting the shell limit the system process.

To make the split color B&W images I used these ImageMagick commands:
convert -size 150x150 tile:color.png tile:bw.png ../temp/mask.png -composite split.png
using a half black, half white split image as the mask.

Then added the split line using:
convert -size 150x150 -fill white -stroke black -draw "line 0,0 150,150" split.png split_line.png