Friday, October 31, 2008

Paper reactor

A few posts ago, I joked about installing a paper reactor. Such a device would be a small fireplace that burns paper, and extracts the energy to do useful work or make electricity.

Paper tends to burn very quickly, due to the high surface area and low volume. Still, a large organization could probably provide a constant supply of unwanted paper to keep it going. A single person, such as myself, would quickly run out of such paper and have to supplement with something else, such as wood, or garbage.

The device would consist of a fireplace-like chamber with small holes in the bottom. The holes not only vent air up to provide the oxygen for combustion, they also let the ash from burned paper sink out from the reactor to free up space. Below this should be a ramp to a waste chute. Ash might make good fertilizer, but I doubt anyone will care to collect it.

Above the fireplace chamber will be a chute that unwanted paper enters through and a method to use the heat, of which I know two. One method is to have a tank of water, which boils from the heat, the steam turns a turbine, generating power. The other is the stiller engine, which moves a piston based on the end near the fire being hot and the end far from the fire being cold(er). Either way, wires should then carry the power to the main grid. The burning chamber should also have a vent for the smoke to the outside, because otherwise smoke will escape up the paper-receiving chutes. The turbine method should also have a condenser that cools the steam back into water and bring it back to the tank, since otherwise one would constantly have to vent steam and refill the tank with a hose.

I estimate that a large businesses burned paper would generate about 500 watts of power. They would also appreciate the additional security, since they often destroy papers that could damage them if stolen by shredding, and this would provide a second obstacle to reconstructing the papers. (Yes, one could technically reassemble a shredded paper. It's harder if the paper is cross cut. It's much much harder if the paper is burned. It's nearly impossible if the paper is cross cut and then burned. It's utterly impossible if the waste chute splits between multiple receptacles.)

Auto Trash Collection

Human living in the modern age involves some waste. Reasonably clean people try to keep theirs contained to avoid interference with their life. There are many wastebaskets that must periodically be emptied into larger sources. At least once per week, most homes have a garbage pickup day, where a company takes the garbage from one place to a landfill.

On the garbage pickup day, all the trash must be centralized at the pickup point. If all containers are the same, then this can be done robotically, saving 15 minutes of work per person.

15 minutes that I hope they use to improve the world.

As for the landfill, it would probably be a good idea to have a hobo rifle through it for useful things (such as metal) sometime.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Paperless society

In other automation news, the one task that I have to do most often that annoys the living hell out of me is organizing the tons and tons of loose papers. They are everywhere. My university sends me papers. I get mail, much of it unwanted crap. Some mail must be destroyed because it could be used to steal money or credit from me, thank you very much credit card spams. College and government demand forms, often in duplicate, or worse, triplicate. There is easily twice the weight of paper than humans in my house. There are also too many books. Handwritten notes are common from places where I had no computer available and still needed to keep a record.

Much of the tasks now on paper could be done on computer. For instance, the 1040-EZ, a "fun" little US Government form that determines how much tax you need to pay them. Despite being perfect for computerization, it is only offered as a PDF file to be printed out and drawn on with a pen. A computerized version could also handle the few calculations involved (add line 23 to 53, subtract line 19, and multiply by the square root of line 89. Well, okay, it's all add and subtract.) A computerized version could even auto-transfer the money at the end thereby relieving me of all responsibility there. (Every year, on April 15th, the date US taxes are due, the post office has to stay open until midnight because large numbers of people insist on waiting until the last possible second. The people working there can't be pleased by that. Nor do I think the IRS is pleased at having a burst of forms on April 16th to fuss with.)

The savings in paper would be immense. The college, government, and spam forms are often sent by mail, meaning that the government subsidized mail carriers had to physically carry it to my house, put it in my mailbox. Electronic forms would be sent as a signal over existing wires, for a savings of 43 cents per form.

Also, computers can more easily be organized. Items can be moved around in batch according to patterns in their content. Were I blind, computers can read many forms with a synthesized voice, whereas paper forms require their own reader, often a friend of the blind person. (Yes, there are OCR devices for blind people that can help them read paper. I don't imagine they're easy to use, especially if one inserts the form upside down.)

If I get any more paper, I think I'm going to invent some kind of paper-burning reactor to deal with it. It would produce energy through the heat difference, and....


The world's farthest away greenhouse

20 light years from our own solar system is a red dwarf star, Gliese 581. Astronomers have confirmed the existence of 3 planets around it. The tradition of naming for planets around stars is to name them with the star's name followed by a letter, starting with 'b' for the first planet. (Because the star is 'a.')

Gliese 581b seems to be a gas giant around the size of Neptune. Gliese 581c seems to be similar to our planet Venus, but larger. Gliese 581d is in the habitable zone, and is speculated to be similar to earth, with liquid water and more. All three are likely to be tidally locked due to their proximity to their home star, meaning that they have a day side that always faces the star and is lit constantly, and a night side facing away from the star that is dark forever.

I think we should send a probe to Gliese 581d, which would broadcast video of circulating the planet when it arrived. It should then land, construct an airtight greenhouse, fill a tank with the local water, and plant the seeds of earth plants in the greenhouse. In the remote chance that Gliese 581d has native aliens, they would probably find this interesting (organisms from ANOTHER WORLD, sealed off so it won't harm us, holy crap!), and if they don't, then we've kick started terraforming the place in case something happens to earth. (Probably the greenhouse would, at some point, leak, and carbon dioxide and methane are gases likely to be common on other planets that plants can use)

Now since Gliese is 20 light years away, and the absolute maximum speed we could manage is about .8c, if we launched this probe tomorrow at top speed, the probe would land 25 years from now, and we'd get the video about it radio'd to us in 45 years. Also, this would cost multiple millions of dollars. Still, awesome, right?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Auto Mow Lawn

Every suburban house has a lawn. Once, lawns were a symbol of luxury, as it meant that you were wealthy enough to employ a gardener for no good reason. But since then, lawns are now maintained by homeowners because they're fun to walk on and everyone else has one.

Using the same logic as vacuuming robots, let's have lawnmowing robots that wander the yard, snipping the grass as they go.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Auto Make Bed

Making beds is a trivial chore. It takes ten minutes at most if you're particularly persnickety about your bedding. Nonetheless, it's a daily task, and even 30 seconds a day can really add up over time.

I propose a series of grips tucked away in the ceiling. On signal, they reach down, probe to the corners, and flip the blanket open as a human would. Repeat for every layer.

Pillows can be fluffed with a pneumatic rod under low pressure.

At completion, the grips can fold hospital corners for fancy people.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Automated Cooking

In medieval times in the west, cooking involved stirring things together and baking them. It was slow work, done by hand. Many bakers worked, because it wasn't practical for the average person to spend 6 hours a day stirring bowls of bread dough and shoving it in an oven. (Yes, there were other cooks that made things that weren't bread, pastry, and cake, but these were the big staples. A very large number of people could barely afford bread, pastry, and cake on holidays.)

Today, there are still bakers, but many of them have been replaced with mixing machines and food processors, because paying someone else to cook your food is expensive and annoying. We don't mind the slight loss of unemployment, because being a medieval baker sucked. Being a modern baker is significantly more fun, because now you can create loads and loads of food that many people will eat, instead of working 12 hours a day just to feed one village.

What else could be done to help out in the kitchen? Certainly more than the existing works, which help prepare the food, but can't help anymore once the heat is applied.

Let's start with ingredient selection. Raw ingredients can be kept in pneumatic tubes and delivered from a signal. Ingredients that should be stored cold would start in a refrigerated area, of course.

An auto-stirring device would be appreciated, I reason from my own experience. Many foods need significant stirring as to not burn on the bottom of the pan and cook evenly. I can't use most chemistry solutions to this, such as magnetic rods spun by a second magnet below attached to a motor, because the heat would damage any magnet involved. In addition, many foods are acid and would absorb an excessive amount of iron.

I can, however, use the industrial solution of a rod attached to large "wings," and rotate the rod by small motor. I know that this can be made not to melt or dissolve in the food, because "wings" exist that can survive being plunged into molten metal. Stirring would be done by yanking the device down into the pot. A non-corrosive metal should be used, or at least one with favorable nutritional properties.

Ovens should have a temperature probe that it can insert into the food and read. It could display this on the front of the oven, for the chef's convenience, so that it is no longer necessary to open the oven to see if the food is ready. Also, it would help if they could automatically turn over some foods, such as meats, say with a fork-on-a-jointed-rod that could be stabbed in, and torqued to deftly turn the food over. This would, again, be controllable from outside the oven, or, for greater automation, computer signal.

Most chefs enjoy distributing and laying out the food, but automation is again possible. A turkey-baster like device could collect fixed portions of soup or other liquid foods, large meat-and-vegetable portions could be cut with knives and placed on a plate with a tong-like device, and semisolid foods such as mashed potatoes can be automatically scooped.

A cook's least favorite part of the meal is cleaning up afterwards. Most foods leave behind residues of food on everything they touch, and should this residue remain untouched, it would rot and stink up the whole kitchen. In the bad old days, one would have to get a tub of water and soap and scrub the food off with a cloth or brush. Sinks mildly improved things, and dishwashers majorly improved things. Restaurants even have industrial dishwashers that can continuously load plates, wash them, and unload the plates for the incoming customers. (Most restaurants do not need to run them perpetually, but they have that ability if needed.) My own dishwasher is terrible, requiring the user to do 99% of the washing before finishing the job, and would literally cook the food onto the plate if given a dirty one directly. I will replace it sometime in the foreseeable future with a more recent design (which doesn't do that), but what can be done about all the dirty pots, pans, and other things that can't fit in the dishwasher?

I could have a cleaning robot that, on signal, comes out of a hiding place, scrubs all unused food from the utensils, vacuums the debris into a holding chamber, and gives a quick wash, soap, rinse, and dry. It would then place the utensil back into place, dispose of the dirty liquids in the sink, and return to storage. I imagine it being spider-shaped, with many legs for stability, several strong manipulators so that it can pick up heavy pots, scrubbing arms with attached bristles, a soap dispenser, a vacuum tube, and a chemical "nose" trained to recognize scents of common cooked foods. It would seek to the source of "cooked food," lift the source with the manipulators, scrub on all sides with the scrubbers, vacuuming each surface before turning. (Although if it does spill anything, there are four models of mopping robots on the market.) It would then apply a small amount of water, soap, scrub, more water, vacuum. It can rub a cloth on a utensil to dry it, then put it down. When it cannot find "cooked food," it should walk to the sink, which I assume can respond to a signal with another one, helping it find it, and eject the vacuum chamber's contents down the disposal. It should also be able to activate the water-flow and disposal by signal, stopping when the grinding reaches a certain tone. (The disposal sounds different when working empty and when grinding food.) It should then return to storage, where it can clean out the vacuum chamber with a wash or something, refill the water and soap, and possibly have the pads and cloth changed.

A somewhat larger robot spider could collect plates, and place them in the dishwasher. The dishwasher could be automatically run at certain times.

If all of these are computer controllable, one is now never too tired to cook, because now one can have preprogrammed recipes made for you with no effort on your part. Chefs that enjoy cooking can have their least favorite parts automated and manually do the rest.

The market for pre-packed food, (Better known as "TV Dinners" because they were invented when TV was new and therefore anything related was clearly a must-have thing made of pure awesomeness), would now be limited to people who genuinely like the way it tastes, and not the no-time-to-cook people or I-don't-know-how people that buy it now.

I also predict many interfaces for this, using a front end and a back end. The back end would actually direct the machines according to prepared instructions. The front end would have a nice user interface familiar to the user, and would list choices. There would be many front ends. A windows user unfamiliar with computers would have a DINNER icon on their desktop that they would double click, and it would provide a list of buttons with large pictures of the food. They would click the one that interested them. An adventurous UNIX user's front end would be a command-line script with a "-random" option that selected a random cuisine, which they would run daily from cron at maybe 5pm daily so that they could sit down to a new dinner every night by 6pm. (cron is a UNIX program that allows you to run programs at certain times, such as "6pm every day," or "every saturday at 12pm," or even "once a minute.")

Friday, October 24, 2008


Lately, I've been changing what question I ask people for more information. I used to ask them what the worst problem in the world was. Most of what came up were sociological problems that can't be solved with chemistry, machines, or anything I know anything about.

So now I've been asking people what task they'd most like see done automatically. Surprisingly, rather than list household annoyances, most people named things that were aspects of their jobs.

Would doing these things automatically take these jobs away, or lower their pay?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Retraction Corner

So it seems a number of my ideas just aren't going to work out.

The melting of the north pole did not occur as fast as was predicted. It was predicted to have completely melted by September of this year. It is now October, and there is still ice on the pole. Less than there was before, and it's still decreasing in an alarming way, but ice remains.

The Radioisotope car would work if most people drove it for what it was, a dangerous and powerful machine. Unfortunately, a look into urban traffic quickly shows that people make excessively risky maneuvers with their car all the time. When their car is powered by hydrocarbons, the way it is now, the absolute worse case error involves their car exploding, potentially killing everyone inside it. Sad, certainaly, which is why they tell you to drive carefully, but not risky to anyone not directly in the car's path.

Radioisotope cars would have a small amount of nuclear waste in them. This waste could be contained so that it would survive a collision with another car without damage, say by using a tough metal alloy. Nuclear waste is currently transported in containers that could survive a direct hit with a minor explosive. Unfortunately, I imagine that if I actually made and sold radioisotope cars, that some fool would attempt to "race the train" by slipping through the safety bars that urge you not to do that and try to make it through the intersection before the train goes through. Trains often go as fast as 90 MPH and weigh hundreds of times more than any car. When a very large, very fast moving, very heavy object collides with a lighter object, simple physics can tell you that the lighter object is going to be pretty much destroyed. So now we have a hazmat emergency, because I can't think of any material offhand that could survive being hit at 90MPH by a train. Raw plutonium on the road would be a horrific emergency for the entire city.

Also, due to power-to-weight ratios, large trucks and large SUVs would be far more practical to isotope-power than station wagons. This style of vehicle is going out of style.

So Radioisotope power should be more restricted to home applications, where it is less likely to be rammed with trains, thrown off cliffs, or run into a wall because somebody decided to go faster than they could readily perceive and interpret.

Although the two could combine again with better batteries, with radioisotopes providing your home power which you use to charge up your electric car's battery.

On the plus side, two of my ideas were used successfully by other people.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Autofarm: The results

Okay then. Farming requires the raising of plants and animals, for food or textile purposes. It's hard work involving loads of tasks. Let me see if I can relieve a few.

I think we should start with an underground drip system to relieve the task of watering, since plants need water, and farm plants often need more water than is provided by their environment. We dig a system of pipes that drip water up into the soil. Scattered water sensors determine how much to add. The best time to water is 3am, so the plant can absorb it without the heat of the sun evaporating it, or the opportunity for fungus to grow while the plant is not drinking in the evening. Nutrients can also be added to the water.

Now I'll start through the farmer's tasks, automating when I can.

The soil must be prepared, because plants don't grow well in compacted soil. Traditionally, it is tilled, originally by digging it all up, and tossing it back into place. Now tractors do this. I propose an "autotractor" that can plow through a specified area, such as a radio fence (which will provide other benefits later), automatically driving between the points until the entire area is plowed. The farmer can still ride if he wants, but I suspect enjoying a glass of lemonade inside will be done instead. Riding should be done on the debugging stage of this to make sure that it does in fact stay within the radio fence.

The seeds must now be planted. This can be done on the back of the tractor. If computer controlled, it could plant certain seeds in certain areas.

The seeds grow. Other plants also grow, that the farmer wants to discourage. Weeds, in other words. For all the advances in machine vision, the best system for identifying weeds is still the farmer's eye and brain. Still, there have been a few developments in weed eradication over the years. First there was the hoe, which allowed the farmer to dig up weeds without bending over, which was bad for her back. Then there were genetically engineered crops that were immune to an herbicide that would be spread over the field, eliminating everything but the crop. Since the genetically engineered option annoys people, I'll provide some kind of power-hoe at this stage. A number already exist in the market.

If the weeds are gathered, we can soak them in a bucket of water in the sun to extract their nutrients, and add the extract to the water supply. The weeds should then be thrown away or fed to animals.

Once the crops reach a certain height, mulch can be added to retard further weed growth.

The crops must be protected from pests. Symbiotic relationships with the pest's predators is one option, as are drugs that kill the pests. These pests can be animal, fungus, or parasite, and eat the crop mostly because it is there. The radio fence can be set up to make an ultrasonic sound to annoy animal pests away. Sound also benefits the plants by some means not currently understood. Perhaps it knocks air into the plant's stoma.

At harvest time, the plant should be uprooted and the parts of human interest cut from the plant. Mechanical harvesters exist for most crops I could name. Lettuce provides an interesting challenge. I propose scooping it up from below, banging it against a surface to move dirt stuck to the roots, washing, and placing in storage.

Animal care is already quite automated due to immense interest from the meat industry. (Automation means less paying for labor which means cheaper meat.) Animals are kept in specialized pens that feed them, remove their waste, and protect them from fighting with each other. Water is also provided. Chicken coups are designed to separate the chicken waste from eggs, and funnel the eggs to egg packaging departments and the waste to some sort of disposal. (Or on the crops, as chicken waste is actually a very decent fertilizer.) Cow care is also very automated, with auto-milking machines, feed throughs, and so on. A hoof cleaning machine could probably be built with existing sensor technology.

Pigs should be washed more frequently than is practical to do it manually. I propose a system with a touch-sensitive brush that has a supply of water and soap. The brush finds the pig, gently rubs it first with water, then with soap, then more water to remove the soap. After seeking its way over the entire pig's body (minus the face area, I can't think of a way to keep the soap out of the pig's eyes), it can be retracted. The pig will probably enjoy the experience as a gentle massage.

Sheep sheering would be a difficult challenge for sensors. We'd start it by providing the tools under farmer intervention. First the tool guided by the farmer. As the system gets smarter, the farmer will need only watch and be prepared to hit a kill-switch if it goes to far, then ultimately be freed of this task altogether. I imagine the tool would find the sheep, buzz off an inch from rump to neck and the underside, then check the under-material. If wooly, continue shaving. If not, stop and release the sheep.

One last potential invention of interest would be an auto-vet that could monitor the health of kept animals. One problem in large farms is that it is not possible for the farmer to keep track of which animals are sick, and the herd is large enough that at any given time at least one animal is sick. The usual solution of giving all animals antibiotics is unfortunately breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria. The auto-vet could monitor traits of the animal for signs of sickness (waste bacteria count, alertness, sounds made by the animal, visual eye condition, and so on), and should it decide that the animal is sick, provide antibiotics into the animal's water. This would not only reduce antibiotic consumption (which does add up), but also increase the effectiveness of antibiotic doses. Antibiotics would be kept up for a period suggested by a human vet.

Well, it seems that farms were already quite automated before I looked into them, so this article wasn't too worth it. Crap.
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