Repository of mad ideas

Cautionary note: I am very fond of my curious ideas, but in most – almost all? – cases I have no practical expertise to bring them to anywhere near fruition. In fact, I have very little practical expertise to do anything: I am, in a word, impractical. So you have been warned.

You might also want to have a look at a site that specialises in things like this:

By the way, if you think there is anything to any of these ideas and want to get in touch, drop me a line here.


    Cambridge business ideas

    Obscure objects of desire




    Publishing by internet subscription

    Outline: People can use a specialised website to ‘nominate’ products – films, music, books – they would like to see published. Others can browse or search the nominated products and, if a product appeals, they can ‘pledge’ money towards it. While enquiries are made as to the costs of publishing the product (‘pricing’), the website shows the ‘tallying’ process: costs versus the number of pledgers. Once the number of pledgers and the amount they are willing to pledge equal the production costs, the product may be considered ‘in preparation’. The pledgers are then contacted about ‘subscribing’: assuming sufficient numbers decide to do so, the product can be ‘published’ and sent to the subscribers.

    Pros: A good way of getting apparently uncommercial material into the public arena. A very open process. Unlike conventional publishing, there is little risk of blowing lots of money on a flop. It could also be used for other items, eg some of the crazy household items on the rest of this list.

    Cons: A lot of work (website design and upkeep, research) for the would-be publisher for little return, unless there was an administration fee built in (and even then…). The sort of films that are likely to be nominated would be particularly hard to track down. Prone to the usual human weaknesses – fickleness, dishonesty, malice, etc.

    Feasibility: I really like this idea and have gone into more detail about it here. I have a name for it and everything: when I feel a bit better-off, I might even go as far as to buy myself a couple of domain names. There’s no stage of the process that doesn’t already exist: the website would need to be super-good, though. Something along the same lines (or some of the same lines) can be found at This allows people to indicate the TV programmes they would like to see on DVD, and lets the studios know the interest. Of course, it’s then up to the studios to make the next move. I’ve recently found the site, which allows exactly the sort of pledging I have in mind. Though it is not perhaps suitable to use directly – the 7% of the total they ask for once the funding has been raised might be a bitter pill to swallow in the circumstances (hell, that 7% should be mine!) – it might give some useful pointers to organising the pledging and displaying the progress of the fund-raising.

    Portable film subtitler

    NB Something quite like this has already been invented for cinema use – see the DTS-CSS Cinema Subtitling System – and I don’t suppose that that is the only example. The difference in this case is that the DTS-CSS uses a projector to put the text directly on the screen. The obvious advantages it has over the system I am suggesting is that the subtitles will sit on the screen itself (though that may also be seen as a disadvantage, since it will block out bits of the picture), and that it can be run from the projecting room (though since the ‘subtitler’, for want of a snazzier term, is bound to be operated by a remote of some kind, it could be run by the projectionist as well). The other probable advantage – impossible to tell just by looking at it, although since it is a complicated, costly piece of equipment it’s likely to be able to do this – will be an absolute synchronicity with the main projected film.

    Outline: Until the digital projector revolution – apparently just around the corner for the past five years – finally kicks in and newly-released films arrive at the cinema on disc or over the net with a cornucopia of DVD-like extras, foreign films will need to be supplied with subtitles. Not necessarily, however, on the prints themselves. Instead, a long rectangular box could sit just under the screen and display the subtitles as a sort of second, text-only film. The box would be a dedicated computer for running movies (in QuickTime, say), plus an attached and similarly dedicated monitor.

    Pros: Fewer prints would need to be struck, as the same ones could be used for different language areas. Judging by the number of times I have seen a print without subtitles, this might come in very handy at film festivals. Because of how the box will need to be situated (under the screen), the subtitles won’t get in the way of the film’s picture, as they do now. In domestic surroundings, a vast number of foreign DVDs (and, come to that, videos) without subtitles could potentially have worldwide sales.

    Cons: The actual business of writing synchronised subtitles would be as arduous as ever: those supplying home-made versions would need to make a note of the time of the beginning of a speech, make a translation, run it back to pick anything missed, and do this every time some spoke or a piece of readable text appeared. In the cinema version, there may be a problem with the audience’s sightlines. If the projector is running a little too fast or too slow, there might be trouble keeping the subtitler in sync. The size of the subtitler's screen would need to be very impressive – larger than any TVs, say, currently available. In the domestic version, three are likely to be issues with different relative speeds of NTSC and PAL (PAL can run up to 15% faster, apparently). It might also be difficult to get the subtitler to mimic the DVD player’s fast/slow/chapter selections. And another thing: how would the box attach itself to the TV?

    Feasibility: This is certainly doable, at any rate in the domestic version. I have already tried it by downloading subtitles for some of my unsubtitled foreign films from a website dedicated to the DivX format, converting those to QuickTime text files, and then running the subtitles on my computer screen in sync with the DVD on the TV. The synchronisation was troublesome and the computer screen was nowhere near the TV, but the principle is clear enough. (Watching them directly on the computer (in this case using the freeware player NicePlayer, which allows two films to be shown simultaneously, was of course much more straightforward.) Click here for more information.

    Importing European DVDs with English subtitles

    Outline: If, like me, you have a voracious appetite for foreign, especially European, films and have already wasted much of your life watching as many of them as you could, you may find that the current trend for distributing a few, often over-hyped European films every year a little limiting. A little research indicates that many European countries produce a significant percentage of their DVDs with English subtitles. What could be easier than importing some of these DVDs into this country?

    Pros: Most of the work has already been done for the importer: the production, the packaging. It might be necessary to supply each DVD with a sheet giving the different foreign terms for standard DVD vocabulary, but that would be about it. Even bought new, these films tend to be a good deal cheaper than the foreign films on UK labels. And there are an awful lot of countries to choose from: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia…

    Cons: Demand is not all that it might be: I contacted someone at Moviemail who said that they tend to sell only a couple of hundred DVDs of most European films. (That may be something to do with the price, of course: twenty quid for most of them, when other DVDs are being given away with newspapers.) The language barrier(s) might be a bit of a problem. More damagingly, these imported DVDs cannot be sold here unless passed by the BBFC. The BBFC apparently charges by the minute for giving films a certificate, so there goes your profit margin… (I gather it’s something like £8 per minute, so that’s £720 for a 90-minute film. So don’t bother with Bela Tarr’s Satantango.)

    Feasibility: It’s already being done by certain websites on the continent: Austria’s and Denmark’s absurd-online, for instance. They tend to specialise in exploitation films of various kinds, rather than in the more upright (ho ho) arthouse fare I have in mind. It’s probably the only way they can make money. The BBFC’s influence here is rather out of date and should perhaps be challenged – and it would presumably make more PR sense to use arthouse examples to do this rather than all that slightly alarming sex and violence stuff defended by the melonfarmers site. One means of supplying them would be through an eBay shop – plenty of examples of this, especially from the US and the Far East – though I wonder whether there’s any money in it. Another possibility would be a membership scheme like the US-based Film Movement (which packages the films itself), where you pay to be a member rather than for the individual film per se. Membership costs about a tenner a month but is restricted to the US. One potential advantage of this option is that, because it’s a club, the films might not need to go through the BBFC filtering system (shades of the Soho ‘film clubs’ of the 1970s). What would be even better than trying to sell them is renting them – but that really is illegal… (Having said that, of course, there’s almost certainly a loophole that would allow one to set up an online film society, let’s say, one of whose criteria for membership is to buy a foreign, English-subtitled DVD which would then be ‘lent’ out to other members. On the other hand, the laws surrounding use of DVDs are so draconian that I suspect they make almost everything you do with DVDs illegal, and it is just that in most ‘normal’ cases – eg watching one at home with a friend, lending one to a colleague at work – they are happy to turn a blind eye. This is unlikely to be one of those cases.)

    Digital Letterpress in the UK

    Outline: A relatively well-established way of printing in the US – the Center for Book Arts in New York even gives classes in it – digital letterpress is more or less unknown, or at any rate unpractised, in the UK. It uses computer technology for the pre-press – the book is typeset in the conventional way, and the pages are sent to an imagesetter and printed onto film as a negative. Then a photopolymer platemaker is used to transfer the image on the negative to a photopolymer plate: when the plate is exposed to light, those parts the light hits through the negative (ie the parts of the film that are still transparent, which is why a negative rather than a positive is used) harden, and when the other parts are washed away by a solvent, the parts to be printed are raised from the surface: letterpress, in other words. The plates can now be used with relatively little amendment on a standard letterpress printer (ie the sort that once used type), although many of those who do it prefer a flatbed cylinder press (eg the Vandercook), which in the past would usually have been employed making proofs. In this country we seem to have a rather manichean choice of book: either an exorbitantly expensive artefact, its gorgeous deckle-edge paper hand-printed on a big iron letterpress printer with movable type that Gutenberg might have recognised; or a not-as-cheap-as-it-should-be book printed efficiently, if anonymously, from pdfs onto paper a couple of notches up from toilet paper. Anyone who has ever owned a book printed in Britain in the 1920s, 30s and perhaps even the 50s and early 60s by Nonesuch, OUP, CUP, the Bodley Head, the Shakespeare Head Press, Chatto and many other quite commercially-minded publishers, will see that there is something wrong with this picture…

    Pros: The arguments for getting to the image-ready stage on a computer are difficult to refute, although it is certainly true that the general standards of editing and typography leave something to be desired. (If the correct tools were available, of course, a computer could help create a rigorously-edited book with very high typographic values using a fraction of the effort it takes to do it with movable or hot metal type. And those correct tools, at least in theory, are almost within our grasp.) As for letterpress, it has a mystique which offset lithography can’t really equal (but which may not be justified, of course). The American printers who go in for digital letterpress have done so because of what they regard as a basic improvement in quality, and because using a letterpress printer allows for a more hands-on, craft-based approach. Although printing from photopolymer plates won’t have as much of the so-called ‘bite’ that old books have, they will have more than litho, a useful consideration in view of the many rather spindly digital typefaces currently used. (The Boxcar Press, a fine printers in New York State, argue that photopolymer plates have significant advantages over lead type: Litho printing has a habit of improving all the time, of course, but there are often issues with water (usually an important part of lithography, which basically works because grease and water don’t mix) and the types of paper used tend to be less interesting (though this may be just a problem with British printers). The move over to computer-to-plate technology has rendered imagesetters relatively obsolete, while letterpress printers themselves are almost never used commercially: in other words, the machines for this operation could turn out to be quite cheap (relatively speaking, of course).

    Cons: It’s very anachronistic. Until recently, I was convinced that no British printer would do it (however, see below): you will have to spend ten years, and many thousands of pounds, learning to do it yourself. Photopolymer plates are far from cheap. It’s too expensive to set up to be a hobby; it’s too time- and labour-intensive to be a business.

    Feasibility: As the numerous US practitioners prove, this already works. I actually took the first step towards it some years ago with a calamitous purchase of an imagesetter, which more or less wiped me out financially and never really worked properly. In the astoundingly unlikely event of any of these other ideas proving to be the making of me, this is the one I shall be doing in my spare time. (I have recently discovered that there is in fact a fair amount of photopolymer plate use amongst the small printing community: whether any of them are willing and able to print books this way is another matter.)

    DVD ‘Scholarly editions’

    Outline: Approaching films as if they were as deserving of scholarship as ‘classic’ texts, giving them introductions, notes and so on. One particular innovation – which I feel many available DVDs would also benefit from – would be two sets of chapters/scenes/tracks: in the case of the ‘scholarly’ DVD, one would be a standard set of divisions, while the other would be something impressive like every new camera shot (though if there are very large numbers of these, and some are extremely short, this may not be possible or even desirable).

    Pros: Cinema, the so-called ‘seventh art’, is increasingly studied in universities as carefully as literature. In the same way that it is more useful for a scholar to read an annotated text, it would be useful to have an ‘annotated’ film.

    Cons: This would very possibly be surplus to requirements: the somewhat fetishistic nature of film-watching and hence DVD-viewing has already given us the ‘director's cut’, commentaries both by experts and those involved in the production, introductions in the form of both documentaries on the film and ‘making-of’ films. This is true not only for a cinephile label like Criterion but also for the major studios, who have realised that these ‘value-added’ extras may be what make the difference between a customer buying the DVD and just recording the film when it’s next on TV.

    Feasibility: As pointed out, much of the extras required in ‘scholarly’ versions are already in place. The main innovation here – the different ‘layers’ of divisions – may be possible, though since I don’t know how the current system of divisions works, I’ve no idea whether a second tier of divisions could be added. Not very useful.


    Grain puffer for breakfast cereals

    Outline: While it’s good to see the people behind that excellent cereal Kashi achieve the sort of success that allows them to buy national press and TV ads,* I must confess to feeling a little miffed at having to part with two quid or more for something whose contents – grains of barley, rye, rice and the like – cannot have cost more than a few pence (organic or no). There’s the additional sense of insult that I am paying more because nothing else has been added. (Compare the price of Kashi with the additive-tastic cornflakes, etc, in the supermarkets.) So just how difficult is it to get grains to puff up like that? Would it be possible to have a kitchen gadget that did this for you?

    Pros: Eat healthily, save money. A novel combination these days. (Dedicated bean-soakers and kitchen gardeners aside.)

    Cons: Since this is likely to appeal to environmentally-minded people, it would be a bit of a blow if the gadget needed an absurdly large amount of electricity to power it.

    Feasibility: So how do you puff grains? Steaming appears to be involved. The Kashi publicity says lots of heat for a short amount of time: probably too much heat (500ºC or so) for a domestic appliance. Perhaps lower temperatures and more time would also do the trick. And drying has to come into it somewhere. Could the microwave be of some use, for a change?

    * I've just noticed that their boxes now carry a discreet Kelloggs symbol. That might explain the ads…

    Reusable alternative to cardboard boxes

    Outline: Living under the rule of an uncivilised city council like Cambridge’s which will only take a little bit of cardboard away every two weeks, I buy a couple of items for work and suddenly find myself overwhelmed by cardboard boxes. They’re bad enough on their own, but they usually come with an assortment of linings and paddings – polystyrene, bubble-wrap, plastic pockets full of air. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a container which could be reused or stacked away in a small space, with padding that didn’t take up even more room than the container itself? Would it be possible to have a tough, lightweight, foldaway box, with padding inside which could be easily inflated from the outside, keeping the contents safe and also helping to lock the top and bottom of the box together?

    Pros: I’m getting a bit sick of my own rubric here. The pros are obvious, aren’t they?

    Cons: Ditto. The usual caveats: it’s just an idea; it might not be at all feasible. Of course, if the boxes turn out to be really good, people might not want to use them to send things, but just hoard them (for moving, etc) and use the horrid old cardboard boxes for postage – which rather defeats the object.

    Feasibility: I’ve gone into absurd (in every sense) detail about this: it can be found here. There’s stuff about science-fiction netting, inflatable air pockets, a sort of ship’s rigging… Hopeless.

    Internet food market/‘Busybody’

    Outline: Using the internet’s facility for keeping personal records and sending automated e-mails for a good purpose, the idea would be to set up a list of customers with fairly specific wants and needs and alert them when these items became available; the ‘busybody’ side of it would be when the customers might be thought to have run out of certain household items (cleaners, staple foods, light bulbs, toilet paper, etc) and told that some more was on its way… In the same way, it could used to alert potential customers that a particular food product – say, an interesting cheese, or plum tomatoes direct from Italy – was shortly going to be available at the local market, and would allow them to reserve some of it. It could also work the other way round, telling the farmers/suppliers that there was what sort of demand there was in a particular area (there is some overlap here with the subscription idea above).

    Pros: Very useful for absent-minded or scatty people; should encourage the use of more expensive (in the short term) environmentally-friendly items. Would enliven the often rather depressing sameyness of the local market. You might actually be able to buy what you want…

    Cons: With so much spam – as well as random e-mails from companies you’ve used in the past – out there, what’s the likelihood of losing interest in messages that purport to do you good?

    Feasibility: Most of it is just using the internet and e-mail in a slightly different way than before. The ‘domestic goods’ version would suit an established vendor more than someone starting from scratch, though of course since it would be guaranteeing the supplier a guaranteed, regular income some form of ‘commission’ might be on the cards. It’s possible to imagine the system as a kind of internet marketplace, like eBay, with a couple of useful extras. There might also be a place for that quasi-serendipitous element of suggesting similar products (‘customers who bought this also bought…’) that you find with Amazon and other sites. Like eBay and Amazon, of course, the ingenuity and user-friendliness of the site would need to be very impressive. As for the 'busybody' element – it might more profitably be thought of as a sort of 'housekeeper' – part of this might be a form where the user puts in his or her food budget for the week or month, and is sent a series of recipes that uses of what he or she has in the fridge and/or cupboard (as supplied by the website, of course). In some cases one can imagine the recipes specifying something that’s due to go off shortly. It’s a really quite outlandish notion, but as P T Barnum H L Mencken almost said, no one ever went broke underestimating the disorganisation of the public. It’s certainly interesting to see how many separate programs exist for helping people get things done (a concept that now, rather bizarrely, warrants its own acronym, ‘GTD’, and for all I know has been copyrighted) as well as with their diets, food shopping and finances. This would bring all this under one roof, as it were.

    Mulching mill

    Outline: The garden I occasionally allow myself to call ‘mine’* needs a lot of work, and doesn’t get it. The littleness of the work it does get is due to natura naturans – nature getting on with it when I’m not looking, which consequently means that whenever I get up the energy and/or courage to approach the garden with my trusty sickle, I know I’ll end up with a great big pile of cut weeds, brambles, etc, and a substantial amount of surface greenery, ready to climb upwards at the first sign of rain. But if there were a machine that helped me cut the stuff down, then converted that stuff to a mulch to lay across the ground and, by denying the surface and below-surface weeds sunlight, helped to kill them, then I would be very happy.

    Pros: Fairly straightforward idea; good re-use of the sort of garden refuse that (as I know to my cost) doesn’t make particularly good compost.

    Cons: Mulch is a problematic substance at the best of times, which this might not be. I’m also getting a certain sense that this might be more trouble than it’s worth.

    Feasibility: As a series of stages, this is well within the grasp of the practical gardener. It might be possible to make the first, cutting-down stage easier and more convenient, but it’s probably just as well to keep it simple, with a cutting tool (scythe/sickle, knife, shears, or combination of these), a rake and a garden bin. There is already a product which converts this weed material to something that could be used as compost – the so-called ‘shredder composter’ – though it would be better if a version that needed elbow grease rather than several thousand watts were available. What would be very good is if the machine used to shred the weeds could also be used to apply the mulch thus created to the ground. It’s possible that one might be able to chuck in other kinds of mulchable material – eg newspapers – at the shredding stage, though the mixture might need extra liquid: water, of course, though a liquid traditionally associated with compost is urine… (And I thought I’d get to the end of a garden-based item without introducing some kind of ‘yuck factor’.)

    * This sounds like a clever way of saying that I have to battle the garden to possess it, but in fact it merely means what it says: I don’t own the house I live in, so I don’t own the garden either.

    Clockwork teapot

    Outline: I sometimes ask myself why I drink so much coffee, and the best answer I can come up with is, because I don’t drink enough tea. (How strangely manichean this makes the world of hot beverages seem.) And I favour coffee over tea not so much because I prefer the taste (though I dare say I do), but because it’s so much easier to ruin tea than coffee. It’s the whole business of stewing: when you’re as absent-minded as I am – and prefer your tea black as I do – then it’s almost impossible to get back to the tea before it’s on the turn (around the six or seven minute mark), and black tea’s really no fun beyond that point. (In my prejudice I assume that it’s much harder to ruin tea with milk in – given that you’ve already ruined it by putting milk in…) Some teapots come with removable midsections, so the tea (leaf or bag) can be taken out before it’s too late. But that still doesn’t help if you forget. So how about a form of timer that winds down towards a time you set, while at the same time lifting the tea out of the liquid? Could that be made to work?

    Pros: Finally, a properly Heath-Robinsonian idea. Get a spindly-lined illustrator here at once. The name’s good, too: it sounds a bit like ‘chocolate teapot’, which as everyone knows is only matched as an emblem of uselessness by the Pope’s testicles…

    Cons: What sort of idiot wants or needs one of these? If you must have a timer on a teapot, why not just have an alarm at the end, so you can hear that it’s ready?

    Feasibility: It must be doable. The timer would presumably resemble the standard sort used in the kitchen, whose dial you turn to a given time. The dial then moves back towards the zero point. Assuming one puts a bit more effort into the turning, the mechanism, moving in the opposite direction, could perhaps turn more than the dial, gradually pulling the section containing the tea out of the water: this would be relatively straightforward if the container was held in a spiral of some kind. The dial could be part of the lid of the teapot, which would look rather good. Potentially.

    Winding disc

    Outline: Many friends of mine don’t seem to have any trouble with long cables – for phones, or computers, or whatever. I, on the other hand, twist them around, put kinks and knots in them, and generally make a mess of them. For me and my fellow cack-handed oafs, then, something that one could clip onto a cable, with a winder to draw in much of the rest of the cable and contain it in an orderly fashion, would be very useful.

    Pros: Obviously useful item, with a potentially very simple mechanism.

    Cons: Am I underestimating the problems of designing this? If it was easy, surely someone would have brought something like this out before now.

    Feasibility: The design that obviously suggests itself is the one used for electrical extension cables: a disc that houses the cable with a handle for reeling the cable in when it’s finished with. That’s straightforward, of course, because the cable starts from inside the disc. The difficulty here is that this disc needs to clip onto the cable, and then somehow start winding the cable into itself, leaving the beginning and end of the cable outside: an interesting, but not (I imagine) insoluble, engineering problem.

    Convenient kitchen composter

    Outline: The latest ‘must-have’ kitchen item for eco-gadgeteers is the ‘Bokashi’ kitchen composter, which uses ‘friendly bacteria’ (here called ‘EM’, or ‘Effective Micro-organisms’) to break down apparently all organic kitchen waste, including meat products and left-overs from meals,* into a pleasant-smelling substance that can go straight onto the compost heap. However, the makes currently on the market (in the UK, at any rate) use a simple, indifferently-designed and overpriced container with a number of small but annoying inconveniences which a more specialised container could avoid.

    Pros: Convenience is the only way to make a genuinely useful product like this popular with everyone.

    Cons: The words ‘sledge-hammer’ and ‘nut’ come to mind. (Then again, the word ‘nut’ often comes to mind when I re-read this page.) This would only deal with the ‘input’ side of things: the ‘output’ side – putting it onto a compost heap in layers between fresh soil and other composting material (rather like a waste lasagna), or digging it into the ground – remains a bit of a fag, unless you are a conscientious greenie (in which case you’re probably happy to use the low-tech composter as it stands).

    Feasibility: The container needs an airtight lid, a perforated shelf where the waste sits, and a tap to draw off the accumulated liquid. Every time kitchen waste is added to the container, a handful of activated bran (the ‘Bokashi’ of the title) needs to be sprinkled on top, then some form of pressure applied to the mixture to push the air out of it (the instructions for current makes suggest using the bottom of a plate). In addition, replacing the air-tight lid, which is necessarily very close-fitting indeed, is currently a bit of a struggle, and anyone lacking agile fingers and strong wrists would find it particularly difficult. It should not be beyond the wit of man to come up with a lid that, when closed, can be ‘locked’ with some kind of turning mechanism. As for the pressure that needs to be applied to the mixture, could the energy used to turn the lock in the lid also be used to suck out some of the air? As the amounts of bran to be added will vary according to the amount of waste added on any particular occasion, it might make more sense to have the bran deposited using a second lever/button/dial on the top, which could be operated more than once, depending on the amount needed (a note on the top could give the user a general guide to how many times to pull the lever/press the button/turn the dial, based on the amount of waste that they’ve put in).

    Currently the whole container needs to be taken out to the compost heap and turned upside-down to empty, so I wonder whether, rather than just having a shelf in the bottom, there should be a removable inner container: the perforations at the bottom would somehow need to be ‘made whole’, but if the bottom had two layers then this should be relatively straightforward (eg, both layers of the bottom have perforations which line up when the bottom is ‘open’, and you ‘close’ it by rotating one of the layers slightly so that the perforations are no longer aligned). Using a removable container also gets rid of the inconvenience of having to have two separate Bokashi kits, as once the container is full the waste mixture needs two weeks to ferment. Of course you’d only need the one lid (again airtight) for the two alternating inner containers.

    * It turns out in the fine print that you shouldn’t put tea bags into the composter. That’s a bit of a blow – I wonder what the problem is. And would it also apply to coffee filters?


    Perforating printer

    Outline: A small office machine that can apply lots of tiny perforations to sheets of paper and card, so that the extraneous parts of the sheet can be torn off and discarded. This would allow quite unusual kinds of paper to be perforated. The unique part of this would be that the shapes can genuinely be anything the user wants (within reason): he or she creates the shape in a standard graphic program on a computer, and this pattern is ‘printed’ to the machine. There could be templates for the more obvious uses (outlines for CD and DVD inserts, labels of various sizes) for the major graphics programs, but the user has a more or less free hand.

    Pros: Cool gadget.

    Cons: Does this add to the gaiety of nations (as my father would say)? How often do people actually want something like this?

    Feasibility: No idea. However, assuming that we use dot matrix printers as a model then we can imagine that the paper or card is fed into the machine (automatically from a tray or by hand), and as it passes through, the perforators on the ‘printing head’ (sharp, hard-wearing needles of some kind) sweep along the width of the paper, creating the shape much as if they were printing type or a graphic. It might even be possible to adapt an existing printer to do this (so that our ‘perforating machine’ becomes no more than a replacement for the printing head, thus saving a great deal of money and space). Whether this would need a new printer driver or could use the one already employed by the printer is another question: it may be worth thinking of the ‘perforating’ printer head as equivalent to the black printer head (assuming the printer prints in more than one colour). But could this really work? Wouldn’t the surface the paper rests on when printed on become full of holes? Apart from anything else, is anyone still using dot matrix printers? (Perhaps this would be a good use for old ones?)

    Alternatively it could be done with the paper static, as in an old-fashioned printing press: the machine would have rows and rows of narrowly-spaced needles capable of being raised or lowered via the usual electro-magnetic processes used by laser printers. The needles that will make the shape will then extend deeper than the others, so that when the machine is pressed onto the paper, only they leave perforation marks. The paper will be kept in place by a series of adjustable rules, while the base will presumably have a raised level with a series of holes that are the mirror image of the needles, so that the ones being used can pass through the base’s first level without being damaged. Although the paper is static when perforated, I can’t see why an automatic feeding system could not place it in the correct position before perforation and remove it afterwards. The pressing mechanism used to make the perforations could also be automatic. One possible advantage of this approach might be that more than one sheet of paper/card could be perforated at once.

    How far the needles will need to be apart, whether they need to be a particular length and shape and what force will be necessary are all questions for those more capable than I am… Minimal research on this subject indicates that commercial perforating machines tend to employ a toothed wheel rather than needles. The number of teeth per inch (TPI) seems to vary widely: 7 and 14 are popular, as are certain multiples of two (4, 6, 8, 12, 18). These wheels evidently run over the paper and make the marks: this would be no good for any complicated patterns.

    Cambridge business ideas

    Self-service sandwich bar

    Outline: Huge numbers of us consume sandwiches other people have made – whether made in front of you or ready-packed from supermarkets or those specialist eat-&-runneries like Prèt-à-Manger and Eat – but they really are the easiest thing to make yourself. (I dare say you could even train monkeys to make sandwiches for you, as long as they could be persuaded to wash their hands first.) So why not a shop where customers can get hold of the ingredients for a sandwich, and make it themselves?

    Pros: Saves money on staff costs, which could be translated into a higher quality of product (eg organic and/or locally-sourced produce). The DIY aspect itself could have a particular appeal for customers in Cambridge like students.

    Cons: We’re now such a lazy society that this may well not work at all.

    Feasibility: There are already sections of restaurants that do something like this – the salad bar is a good example (indeed since much of what goes into modern sandwiches could be classed as a form of salad there is no reason why a customer couldn’t put together a salad instead). Apart from the perennial problem of making money from these sorts of establishments, the biggest question mark over this idea is the whole health & safety issue: would it cost so much to make sure that the customers’ clumsiness wasn’t creating areas of bacterial activity that it would be impossible to make a profit? One example might be whether to use individual tubs of salad/sandwich filling or have a larger container from which the filling is spooned onto the plate. (These two options would also set up different ‘tones’ for the establishment – the big container pointing in the direction of a works canteen, the individual tubs suggesting something more along the lines of Subway or McDonalds.)

    Market deliveries

    Outline: Cambridge has a small but pretty good market, supplying local fruit and vegetables and a variety of interesting foodstuffs (coffee, cheese, bread, meat). In many cases (especially the fruit and veg), these products are of a much higher quality than what is available in the supermarkets. However, the market is open for such a short time every day (from 10am to 4pm, more or less) that anyone who works more than 20 minutes away from the city centre won’t be able to take advantage of it, except at the weekend, when every Cambridge resident knows that the place will be absolutely packed. But on weekdays, if items could be bought from the market during the day and then delivered in the evening, this would be very helpful…

    Pros: Better food more conveniently delivered – one in the eye for supermarkets. There’s also a ready-made delivery point for commuting customers, in the shape of the railway station.

    Cons: Would the discounts for bulk-buying at the market and the premium for delivery be enough to make this a profitable system? Can the market people afford discounts? Will the customers pay the delivery charges?

    Feasibility: The internet and mobile phones should make the ordering side much easier to do, though the organisation and pre-planning involved in getting this to work will still be considerable. The stallholders in the scheme can supply information about what they have that day to the delivery contact, who puts it on the business website and automatically sends out e-mails and/or texts to registered customers (who have already made their preferences clear). The customers put in their orders throughout the day (with some kind of cut-off point in the early afternoon), the buyer goes to the market and picks the items up, then sorts them and delivers them in the evening, according to a prepared schedule. (Clearly there need to be safeguards so that a customer who orders something in the morning doesn’t get it because the stall has run out by the time the buyer turns up: could this be done by texting the stallholders?) In fact, this idea is probably the wrong way round: it should be the market stallholders who hire a purchasing/delivery agent, rather than the delivery people touting for business from both stallholders and customers. That being said, if this could be made to work, then there’s no reason to limit it to the market: a number of Cambridge-based shops could benefit from this (though of course some, like Arjuna, already supply a delivery service – in Arjuna’s case for purchases over £35). It should also be possible to alert customers by e-mail if, as the stalls begin to close, there are interesting bargains, which means that the buyer is going to need a pretty snazzy PDA/mobile…

    Obscure objects of desire

    Ceramic espresso makers on the hob

    Outline: I used to have one of these – a German make, ‘Olympia-Cafe-Express’ (‘Sie ist aus hochwertigem, feuerfestem DIAMANT-Porzellan hergestellt’, it said in the accompanying leaflet). I bought it – paying rather more than I thought I should – from a short-lived bric-à-brac shop in Cambridge. It was probably about fifteen years old then and its rubber washers were worn, but it was still pleasant to look at (in white), and made very nice coffee, without that (inevitably?) metallic taste you get with the hob espresso makers that come in aluminium or steel. I destroyed mine by putting the coffee on and then forgetting about it once too often – the water boiled away and the bottom section exploded, with a very hot piece landing on the kitchen floor and melting the vinyl – so an improvement to the design would presumably be some kind of mini-whistle in the steam-hole in the base. Anyway, here’s a picture of the original, complete with coffee stains…

    Pros: Elegant, novel. Portable. Nice coffee! Amaze your friends.

    Cons: Does anyone actually use their hob espresso makers anymore? I don’t suppose it’s worth selling the family jewels to set up a company to make these.

    Feasibility: Espresso makers have very few parts – the bottom section where you put the water; the funnel-shaped middle section where you put the coffee grounds, which may have a separate perforated disc where the grounds actually sit; a rubber washer for insulation; the top section where the coffee comes out – none of them moving, so it shouldn’t be that hard to construct. Metal espresso makers connect the top and bottom sections by screwing them together: the ‘Olympia-Cafe-Express’ used a pair of the same sort of pull-down metal fasteners that you find on kilner jars. Perhaps there is a problem with making spiral threads in ceramics, so that a screw fit is impossible (would they break too easily?). I assume ceramics would actually be very straightforward to create in the particular shapes needed. I’ve asked a potter who sells his wares on Cambridge market about this, and he says that you could put a ceramic container directly onto a cooker hob as long as you used a form of clay called ‘fireclay’, which is apparently more difficult to work with than standard clay, but by no means impossible. The extra whistle might cause problems because of its size (and also the screw issue), although a whistle is a very simple object in itself.

    Household gadgets – ‘one step back, two steps forward’

    Outline: In the spirit of environmental friendliness, it would be good if we could ditch some of those electric mod cons in the kitchen and the rest of the house in favour of hand-operated alternatives. It seems impossible to believe that in the run-up to the general electrification of households during the first half of the twentieth century, those doing the housework hadn’t come up with labour-saving devices which were then ditched in the first waves of enthusiasm for the new technology. Some things have survived, of course: the carpet sweeper, the manual coffee grinder. But are there forgotten gadgets that would make a low-energy house that much easier to live in?

    Pros: Lots of green Brownie-points (as it were).

    Cons: Hey, these items disappeared for a reason, didn’t they?

    Feasibility: There is actually a fairly well-known UK company that specialises in reproducing clever old gadgets for the popular market: Lakeland Limited. So it’s a question of doing the research, and trying to convince them it’s a good idea. (That might be easier said than done: Lakeland used to sell an interesting-looking hand-operated ice-cream maker, but that seems to have been discontinued in favour of swish new electric ones…)

    Aertex for adults

    Outline: In the 1980s I inherited a couple of short-sleeve aertex shirts from my grandfather, who had barely, if ever, worn them; and a little later picked up a truly marvellous collarless aertex shirt – not unlike a nightshirt in design, and occasionally worn as one – from the vintage clothes stall on Cambridge market. Later still I got a rather jolly waistcoat, mostly in aertex, from one of Cambridge’s charity shops. I’ve worn all the shirts out and would be worried about wearing the waistcoat in public (even if I could still get into it) in case I started a class war, but the shirts were uniquely pleasant to wear in the summer, and I’ve been surprised to discover that I can no longer get hold of any replacements, the company Aertex having given themselves wholly over to saucy underwear and school sportswear (two areas which one hopes are mutually exclusive…). In fact, their website seems to be asking for people to suggest licensing opportunities. Well, here’s one: Aertex for adults.

    Pros: After all this time it would seem like a novelty. The fashionistas would go crazy for it – is it new? is it old? is it trendy? is it naff? is it dandified? is it functional? and so on and on.

    Cons: Do I look like the sort of person who could afford to start up a clothing company dedicated to a holey fabric? Well do I? Oh, I forgot, you can’t see me, can you? Well, take it from me: I don’t.

    Feasibility: Eminently feasible: it’s just a question of demand…


    The breakthrough electronic book

    Outline: Personal digital assistants (PDAs) and dedicated eBook readers have already introduced the world to the electronic book, but it has so far failed to take off. The main problem is probably the screen, which is only now beginning to look sufficiently paper-like to work and is still fairly primitive in resolution terms. This shouldn’t stop us imagining what it will look like.

    Progress: In 2004 one of the most promising of the new display technologies, E-Ink (whose manufacturers took the precaution some time ago of getting into bed with Philips), was used in a Japan-only eBook by Sony, the Librié. Though there were some quibbles about the way this was put together – see – there seems to have been unanimity about the excellence of the screen-reading experience, even if, to those of us who were taught that the eye stops seeing the ‘jaggies’ at about 800dpi, the resolution of 167ppi seems rather low. A second Sony reader (the imaginatively-named Sony Reader), which has apparently a great improvement on the first, became available in Japan in the spring of 2006 and in the US later in the year: the readers’ reviews I’ve read (at generally suggest that it’s a great idea with some way to go. Here’s a picture from the Sony website:

    There are issues with updating the images: the E-Ink prototype specifications give image update times of 500ms for black and white (1-bit mode) and 1000ms for greyscale, which in ‘real money’ presumably means half a second and a second respectively. That’s on the slow side, to put it mildly. There’s no getting round that, at least for the time being (I gather it’s a question of the voltages needed, and E-Ink requires quite high voltages). I suppose it’s possible, if you are using the double-spread technique discussed below, to change the left-hand page while the reader is looking at the right-hand page, and vice-versa, but that might be slightly alarming… (Maybe worth a thought, though.) The slowness of the page-changing in Librié was much remarked on: apparently the new reader is faster.

    E-Ink also offer a prototype kit, consisting of a 6" (3.6" x 4.8") TFT display panel, a CPU with Linux OS pre-installed, and various other goodies (eg a Lithium-Ion battery and power adapter), for anyone interested in putting together their own reader – a snip at $3,000… (See They are also likely to offer an A5 screen in the near future, though that’s probably going to be much more expensive, pixel for pixel, than the smaller screen.) The screen is currently only black and white. The prototype seems a very canny move on E-Ink’s part: despite Sony’s formidable experience and research capabilities, we’re on fairly new territory here, and it may be that one of the small-scale developers tempted to give the electronic book a go comes up with the breakthrough solution. (And it will really have to be exceptional, as in my experience the resistance to electronic books from the disposably-incomed, middle-brow reader – the market, in other words – is considerable.)

    Update: The EU, not to be outdone, have produced their own version of the e-book reader. It’s called the iLiad and appears to use E-Ink as well (the website refers to ‘electrophoretic technology’). You can use this machine to write as well (as with a PDA), which seems rather excessive. It’s also a great deal more expensive: around £450 (650 euros) as opposed to the Sony Reader’s £200 ($400). Here’s a picture from the site:

    Some thoughts: My feeling has always been that an electronic book should resemble the conventional book in one particular way – it should use the same ‘double-spread’ idea of two pages facing each other. Apart from the (possibly underrated) sense of continuity, what I thought would be particularly good about this is the possibility of turning it round and using it as a single page of twice the size, perhaps resembling a newspaper page (or a music score?). It would also be possible to use one ‘page’, the one you aren’t reading, for different things: displaying notes on the text, allowing you to write your own, showing a parallel text (different language, alternative manuscript), showing a search menu and results, that sort of thing. As it would ideally be closed shut, again much like a conventional book, the display would either need to be two separate screens abutting each other, or a single screen that could be folded without causing damage at the fold. Either of these methods might prove tricky, even though many modern display technologies work with flexible substrates. However, it might be more useful for the time being to think of this as having two separate screens representing the two pages. I dare say there might be issues in getting a single file to work with two screens.

    A reader like this could even have certain advantages over a printed book in that it could be opened flat without the reader having to hold the pages down and could also incorporate within the cover a stand of some kind so it could sit at an angle on a flat surface like a table or desk. (It might even be worth thinking of accessories, such as a special cushion that keeps the reader at a convenient angle when you sit it on your lap.) Although none of the new technologies needs backlighting, an extra reading light, acting much like an under-the-bedclothes reading torch, could be made part of the book. The PLED option from Cambridge Display Technologies can even be configured to work backwards, generating energy from light and putting it back into the machine: in the cases of the other technologies, it would seem obvious to use some form of photovoltaic cell to provide at least a proportion of the power needed to run it. Another, slightly bizarre idea is to have a small keyboard that could be pulled out of the inside of the reader, flipped over to cover one screen of the reader, so that it could be used for making notes that appeared on the visible screen (the reader would in effect be used on its side). However, it might be more sensible to assume that one could buy an extra keyboard to use with it: it certainly seems a good idea to allow the reader to be able to save input from the user (no doubt all do in one way or another, as they presumably record preferences, remember where the user was in the book, etc).

    One thing that strikes me as an interesting possibility is to make the plastic case surrounding the reader the same colour as (or as close as possible to) the screen colour, so that the case looks like part of the page and any buttons, etc, look as if they are in the ‘margin’. (What is the screen colour, as it happens? Both the Sony Reader and the iLiad look very grey in the pictures above: is this a trick of the angle – they will have their products photographed in this tricksy way! – or an inevitable result of the E-Ink process? If there is a choice, everyone knows that the nicest paper colour to read on is an off-white ‘ivory’ shade – not too white, not too creamy…)

    Value-added texts: The biggest questions about electronic books are two related ones: first, given the sheer number of texts already available in pdf from places like, how does a commercial publisher produce value-added versions of the text?; and secondly, how can the publisher stop the files simply being copied? The content issue is currently being firmly ignored, although I suspect that the cannier publishers are now storing their texts in very flexible formats like XML, so they can be converted into printed, web and screen pdf versions at the touch of a button. For many bestselling publishers, the ‘added value’ would come from the text itself – the new Harry Potter volume or latest Dan Brown thriller – and they would only need to supply that in a convenient format. For others the point, really, is that the ‘hypertext’ possibilities of an electronic book – the ability to compare texts, to bring up references and other notes instantly, before going back into a more conventional ‘read’ mode – suggest that the files could be conceived quite differently from a standard book (although having a second screen, thus resembling a standard book more closely, would come into its own here). Acrobat already has a number of hypertext facilities, but it may be that something even more advanced is required. These possibilities would be particularly useful for academic work where references are used a great deal, and for scholarly editions of literature (the ‘variorum’ edition, where all the different manuscripts and early print versions are compared, would work very well), as well as translations from other languages, where someone familiar with the other language could check on the translation by accessing the original, dictionaries, etc. (Once again, however, I am concentrating on my own constituency – that tiny band of brothers…)

    The ‘Napster’ issue: As for the question of copying: if the publisher only supplied the files via the internet, and in fact the relevant book file were created ‘on the fly’ (not an especially tall order, I would imagine – something similar to this is done by the rather wonderful Gallica site as part of the French Bibliothèque Nationale), what they could do is use a preliminary piece of software to derive information about the machine on which the book file was to appear – under the (quite valid) guise of using the information to customise the file – and use the machine’s unique ID (its serial number, in most cases) to create a file that only works on that machine. An extra point would be that the customer could download the file onto a limited number (five?) of different machines (each time the file would be slightly different to reflect the difference of the machine), so that they could have a copy on their eBook, their hard drive, their laptop, and two in reserve in case they changed machines. One point about this is that Acrobat, despite its security features, might not be able to handle this: the fact that the book might also use some hypertext-like features that it couldn’t do makes it seem increasingly likely that a different file format would be better. On the other hand, the absolute ubiquity of pdfs means that it would be very short-sighted not to allow the reader to incorporate a version of Acrobat. And if the machine’s proprietory reader application was to be accompanied by Acrobat, then why not the other main reading formats (Microsoft Reader, etc)? A second point is to note that Sony’s recent anti-piracy software for their CDs has landed them in trouble (see here, for instance), as its ability to worm its way into a hard disk is thought to offer several pointers to would-be hackers. The software needed to find and record the serial number (along with other useful information about the monitor size and operating system version) may well overstep the privacy mark too, though of course its interface could be made to ask politely if the user doesn't mind doing this – the usual ‘Continue’ and ‘Cancel’ buttons coming into play. (One of the complaints about Sony's method was that it was completely surreptitious, and was only discovered by assiduous research by a particular analyst.) No doubt hackers, with their customary efficiency, will find a way round this (changing the serial number, or something similarly drastic), though perhaps a layman-friendly version of this technique might take longer to appear in the public domain.

    Passenger airships

    Outline: Though it’s still early days, we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the aeroplane as a mass transporter. Hardline eco-commentators are always pointing out that a one-way ticket to Florida by passenger jet uses up a single person’s environmental ration for two years (or something along those lines), and though that might be overstating the case, planes can’t be considered particularly green on any level. In my uninformed way I’ve been scanning the internet for signs that the obvious alternative to planes, airships, might be slipping out of their present role as Goodyear blimps and making a run for it across countries and continents…

    Progress: A few months ago I finally came across a site – – which made some interesting claims for the airships it envisioned for the future. In particular, the so-called ‘Bio-Technical Airship’ would apparently have a cruising speed at 250 knots (285 mph/460 kph), as well as being extremely quiet and smooth. (Actually, the site suggests – though with a fraction of its usual gung-ho tone – that the ships might potentially be capable of supersonic speeds.) Here’s one of those ‘artist’s impressions’ downloaded from the site – very like a whale, as Polonius might say.

    There’s a good deal of technical data on the site, which I haven’t a hope of understanding, so it’s possible that it’s the work of a crank. (I imagine that, on seeing the importance the site accords to Viktor Schauberger, the hearts of most scientists would sink very fast. Nikola Tesla is also cited, but he appears to be a less controversial figure.) Even if it isn’t, there might be all sorts of problems that arise at the practical stage (at the moment the craft discussed – which include a form of submarine as well – all seem to be theoretical prototypes). No doubt because of the preliminary nature of the development, there’s also precious little concrete detail on the site – the airship’s dimensions (are there minimum and maximum sizes?), how much one would cost to produce, what the energy consumption is like, how people get on and off, how it ‘takes off’… (Update: the site gives the Bio-Technical Airship’s dimensions as: 571 feet (174m) length; 145 feet (44m) diameter.)

    Even so, it might be worth an air entrepreneur – this site specifically mentions Richard Branson, and he’s certainly the first example to spring to mind – investigating the possibility of using airships for internal UK flights. (This is what the aeronautical industry would no doubt call ‘starting small’.) The distance from London to Edinburgh is traditionally taken as the length of the A1, 413 miles, and if the ships can set off from within the city rather than from somewhere like Heathrow or Gatwick (using the ‘STOL’ (Short Take-Off and Landing) capability which all airships share), they’re likely to get to the destination faster than the existing plane service: a BBC news page on travel alternatives from 2001 ( suggests that it takes about 3 and a half hours from the centre of London to the centre of Edinburgh (including getting taxis to and from the airports and the checking-in period), although of course the air journey itself is a mere 90 minutes.

    Further research has dug up another, and more fully realised, passenger airship on the, er, horizon: the ‘Aeroscraft’ by the originally-USSR, now-US company Aeros. Their cruise ship is called the Aeros-ML, and looks like this:

    Not quite as elegant, is it? Still, there’s a great deal more information about it (see this ship is much shorter and somewhat narrower than the Bio-Technical Aircraft: 81m long, with a diameter of 35.4m. There was a flurry of interest in the Aeroscraft in the US back in February 2006, including this mockup from the ‘Popular Science’ website (, which shows its size compared to passenger planes:

    The top speed of this machine is said to be 150 knots (175 mph/ 280 kph) – London to Edinburgh in 2 and three-quarter hours. Despite dwarfing the planes, the Aeros-ML has a maximum ‘payload’ – oo-er, hark at me – of 120, while a Boeing 747 (with a length of 71m, a wing-span of 65m and a fuselage width of 11m), can take 400-plus passengers. The first of these aeroscrafts are due to be ready in 2010. There has been some interest from green commentators, though perhaps only because Aeros has positioned itself as the ‘ecological choice’. But since it’s supposed to be a kind of luxury hotel in the sky (complete with casino, apparently), it’s ‘ecological’ in the same sense as overpriced organic products aimed at the particularly wealthy… Could something this size, capable of carrying only a relatively small number of passengers on each journey, provide any competition to planes? Could they be housed in the confines of city airports? And, seriously, couldn’t they be a little smaller?