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Whose Bright Idea Was That? The New York Times Magazine Ideas of 2007


The GombocThe Gomboc

They're not the best, not all the most promising .... They're not even the most popular. The ideas are not necessarily good ideas. They are not categorized by science, technology, or other standard classifications -- only alphabetically ordered. But the New York Times Magazine's 7th Annual Year In Ideas has picked 70 ideas just for your interest that have been percolating around the world in 2007.

The "ideas," many of which are truly "inventions," are engaging from many perspectives and, at the very least, worthy of chit chat at a cocktail party. I'll give you a sampling (28!) categorized in my own way... The WOWs! The OHs. And The ANDs?


The WOWs!

  • M.I.T. physicist, Marin Soljacic, and his team found a new way to transmit wireless energy through magnetic resonance, a phenomenon very similar to acoustic resonance. In Soljacic's experiment, "WiTricity ," he successfully used two copper coils attached to a dying cell phone to light a 60 watt light bulb six feet away. He theorizes that, in the future, wireless ports can be used to recharge batteries, light bulbs, even electric cars and pacemakers! Wireless Energy

  • If you depend on Wikipedia for your information, you may want to know who's put it there. A 24-year old computer hacker has developed Wiki Scanner , a computer program to detect who's fooling with the info. You can check out entries or see the lists of Virgil Griffith's picks at his website .

  • The Magenn Air Rotor System (MARS) finally received its patent in 2007. The prototype wind turbine is helium-filled and extends from a tether 1000 feet above the earth, where the wind is stable. The 100 foot wide turbine looks like a blimp spinning around in the air. It can generate 10 kilowatts of energy, spinning air into electrical energy, enough to power a small village. MARS is 100 feet wide and, already, larger ones are being built to light Las Vegas (just kidding... I think).

  • United Parcel Service (UPS) has eliminated all left turns from its service menu. After a year of only right turns, the company has the company cut its mileage by 28.5 million, saved three million gallons of gas, and has reduced CO2 emissions by 31,000 metric tons. Brown is turning a bit green, wouldn't you say? Left-Hand-Turn Elimination.

  • Vinod Khosla, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, is funding several companies whose goals are to create greater use of biofuels . The slow breakdown of cellulose is an efficiency problem in converting bio-waste or plants to fuel. One plant is already operating a process that eliminates two of the four traditional steps in biofuel conversion. Another Khosla-backed company has genetically engineered microbes that "eat cellulose and excrete oil." And a third enterprise exploits naturally occurring cellulose-eating enzymes in certain organisms to produce ethanol. (I would keep both eyes on these developments.)

  • Ocean wave energy is being studied and one group, SRI International has demonstrated an inexpensive way to produce electricity from the sea. An elastomer cable, like a huge elastic band, is anchored to the ocean floor at one end, and to a buoy at the other end. When a wave comes through the band it causes the elastic to stretch. When the wave subsides, the elastic relaxes, producing a few watts of energy.
  • Canadian scientists have created a paper that is sensitive to bacterial changes in food. It will help us do our own food testing. Telltale Food Wrapping.

The OH's

  • It's not only politics, meat eaters smell bad, according to some vegetarians... so bad, that vegetarians don't want to go near them. But PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) says those vegetarians have the wrong idea. The organization would like vegetarians to use their seductive powers, as well as others, to convert meat eaters to vegetarianism. Once you've made the convert, PETA says, you're work is done. Go get another omnivore. Vegansexuality.
  • Women should choose the father of their children based on the strength of his handshakes. Handshake Sex Appeal.
  • It's now time to inject fish with fish flavoring so it tastes like (what else?) fish. Fish-Flavored Fish.
  • Put a cucumber in a vacuum container, suck the air out of the cucumber, and refill the air sockets with a martini and you get an edible martini! (I suspect this will soon be trendy and it'll cost an extra $12 to get a drink.) Edible Cocktail.
  • Remember the deck of playing cards that the U.S. government issued with the faces of the most wanted terrorists? Well a few U.S. towns have adopted this plan using pictures of their most wanted killers, rapists, thieves, and other assorted criminals. Aside from adding a personal touch to jailhouse poker, the decks of cards are helping to capture more criminals. Prison Poker.
  • A study done on colostomy patients revealed that those who were told that they had no hope for a natural repair judged their quality of life better after six months than those who were told there was some chance of repair. We make the healthiest adjustment when outcomes are known. Hope Can Be Worse Than Hopelessness.

  • An appendix actually does have a function; it harbors beneficial bacteria that aid in recovery from dysentery and diarrhea. The Appendix Rationale.
  • Another study points to the persistence of pushing oneself to achieve certain goals that may not be achievable or realistic; accepting the truth may be a better idea. Quitting Can Be Good for You
  • Cheating spouses? Before kicking them out of your life, make them pay! Consider preparing a "post-nuptial" in which you forgive them in return for a larger share of the communal property.
  • Brain On God or Brain On Football or Brain on More-Or-Less Anything is a very persuasive advertising technique, even though viewers don't know what the heck they're looking at. That's why MRI's (Magnetic Resonance Images) are big in advertising. Neurorealism.
  • In the U.S. one can get a Brailed tattoo, but do blind persons want them?

The ANDs...?

  • Gabzdil Libertiny, a young Slovakian product designer, sculpted a vase out of beeswax and put the vase and a camera into a bee's nest so he could watch about 40,000 bees cover it with their own layer of beeswax. After 12 bee-built vases, taking a week each to build, Libertiny is not making a business out of bee vases... they leak anyway. But Libertiny did learn that beeswax keeps flowers fresher than glass.
  • Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada ran his computer program for 18 years to figure out all the possible moves in checkers. He now has a computer program that's unbeatable at checkers .

  • Gabor Domokos and Peter Varkonyi, of the Budapest University ofThe GombocThe Gomboc Technology and Economics created the first self-righting object , an object that, no matter where it is set down, will right itself to its natural balance. The pair discovered the "Gomboc" using mathematical concepts.
  • Question: If you can identify the drugs that one man takes by testing his urine, how can you identify what drugs the whole community is taking? Answer: Test the sewer water. Community Urinalysis
  • We are more generous to others when exposed to words like god, religion, contract, or police prior to being asked to donate to others, even when no one is watching us. The God Effect.
  • A physics professor and his research assistant at UCSD (University of California, San Diego) concluded that string longer than 1.5 feet is likely to knot up as a result of being moved around. They concluded this after shaking up boxes with different mouse-cable-size string inside 3,415 times. Knot Physics.

I would love to continue this column, adding my two bits to all 70 ideas, but I recommend you read the original Times magazine features (Sunday, December 9, 2007). Each idea has some fascination, even if it's not Nobel prize-worthy in 2007.

Myra Per-Lee
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