Why did it take 250 years for washing machines to become popular?

Thursday, 2 March, 2017

Washing machine design, 1766. Image via ETH-Bibliothek

There’s nothing new about the washing machine. A patent for a device, or engine, for the “washing of cloathes”, and other purposes, such as “milling of sugar canes, pounding of minerals”, was issued in 1691.

The illustration above is taken from a book published in 1766, by Jacob Christian Schaeffer, a German pastor and professor. For their labour saving virtues, isn’t it strange then that washing machines didn’t come into wide use until almost two hundred and fifty years after their advent?

It’s not as if there was some other option hindering their uptake either. Like the humble washboard, for example. They were first patented in 1833, quite some time after the washer.

So what gives? I know there are people averse to things shiny and new, but isn’t holding off on adopting what will surely save much time and effort, taking matters a little too far? Of course, the earlier versions predated the supply of electricity, and required manual operation.

But that would only have been an imposition, if you allowed it to be. For instance, you could have recited some verse as you churned the machine through its cycle. Come on now, at least you weren’t getting your hands dirty.

Justin Fox – no, not that Justin Fox – writing for Bloomberg View, decided to investigate. He found people wanted their washing machines to be electrical, fully automatic – to hell with reciting verse – and reliable, and cheap. Then, and only then, would they ditch the washboard.

It was only with the invention of the electric washing machine by Alva Fisher in Chicago in 1907 that something dramatically better than the washboard came along, and even then it took decades more for the machines to become cheap and reliable enough to change how people cleaned their clothes (and of course in much of the world, washboards still rule). In the U.S., according to a 2013 paper by Benjamin Bridgman of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the big gains in household productivity enabled by the washing machine, dishwasher and other such devices occurred between about 1948 and 1977.

Related: , ,

Will film streaming mean the end of commentary tracks?

Friday, 24 February, 2017

Film streaming has a number of advantages over DVDs. Not having to worry about the disc being damaged, to the point playback is hampered, or doesn’t happen at all, is one of them.

But to everything there is a cost. Streaming may spell the end of commentary tracks, that often feature a movie’s director, and prominent cast members, says Andrew Egan, writing for Tedium.

This would be unfortunate if commentary tracks were no more. Often a lot can be learned about a film from the sometimes candid thoughts of those involved in its production.

Related: , , ,

All sorts of small ideas and innovations that are likely taken for granted

Monday, 20 February, 2017

Avocado, with label

Where would we be without BuzzFeed, and their enticing, clickbait titled, listicles? How else would we know about the existence of these sorts of things?

Colour coded shopping baskets, that let the sales staff at a store know whether you need help or not. A credit card tip jar that allows you leave one dollar gratuities. Elevators with buttons near the floor, in case your hands are full.

Or, microwave ovens with mute buttons, so you won’t wake anyone when fixing a midnight snack. Or stickers that indicate how ripe an avocado is, according to its colour, as pictured above.

Related: , , ,

Aggregator of all things, things magazine

Monday, 20 February, 2017

The publishers of London based aggregator of all things, things magazine, have spent the last little while trawling through links on their extensive blogroll, which includes disassociated.

Blogrolls. Remember those? For the uninitiated, blogrolls are collections of links favoured by the author of a website. They were preceded by links pages. Bonus points if you remember them.

I’m stoked to see they swung by this way in the last week or so, and rate disassociated as “recommended”. Thank you. If have a taste for, well, anything, then I suggest you check them out, and better still, subscribe to their RSS feed.

Related: , , , , , ,

Will coding and programming work become the new blue collar jobs?

Monday, 13 February, 2017

Coding as the new blue collar job? Rather than worry about the decline of manufacturing, and other manual labour jobs, which are gradually being lost to automation, why not focus on teaching workers of the future to write software and apps?

These sorts of coders won’t have the deep knowledge to craft wild new algorithms for flash trading or neural networks. Why would they need to? That level of expertise is rarely necessary at a job. But any blue-collar coder will be plenty qualified to sling Java¬≠Script for their local bank. That’s a solidly middle-class job, and middle-class jobs are growing: The national average salary for IT jobs is about $81,000 (more than double the national average for all jobs), and the field is set to expand by 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than most other occupations.

After all, demand is only going to increase as we become more reliant on computing technologies. And it’s not as if coding is work reserved for the likes of hot-shot Silicon Valley startup founders. Even I’ve coded in the past.

In Kentucky, mining veteran Rusty Justice decided that code could replace coal. He cofounded Bit Source, a code shop that builds its workforce by retraining coal miners as programmers. Enthusiasm is sky high: Justice got 950 applications for his first 11 positions. Miners, it turns out, are accustomed to deep focus, team play, and working with complex engineering tech. “Coal miners are really technology workers who get dirty,” Justice says.

Related: , ,

Cutie Keys, a virtual keyboard for virtual reality

Wednesday, 8 February, 2017

In the not to distant future we may find ourselves switching from one virtual reality realm to another. That sounds kind of cool, but have you given any thought to how you will use a keyboard in this domain? Or if that’s even possible in the first place?

If you’ve not, then Cutie Keys, a virtual keyboard, that lets you type as if you were drumming, created by technology and computer company Normal, could be what you’re looking for.

Via prosthetic knowledge.

Related: , ,

You mightn’t like what you see, this is what flying cars will look like

Monday, 6 February, 2017

Flying car prototype by Airbus

When I first heard about the concept of flying cars, way, way, back in the day, I envisaged a pretty much normal car that was somehow capable of flight. Much like the DeLorean from Back to the Future Part II, for instance. That such a vehicle was able to fly, was more important than how it could fly. Aerodynamics be damned, and all.

This prototype being developed by Airbus therefore, was not quite what I expected. It looks more like a helicopter. Still, it flies, and how knows, maybe future versions will be able to park in a standard size garage.

Related: , ,

Blockchain. What’s blockchain? Here’s an introduction

Monday, 6 February, 2017

Blockchain technology could drastically change the way we conduct many financial transactions. If you’re like me, and have heard the word bandied about, but have little idea what it’s all about, this article by Lisa Fedorenko, an analyst at Sydney based Montgomery Investment Management, offers a straightforward explanation.

What blockchain does is create a unique identity for digital assets. When I have a physical pen – it is easy to trace who is holding that particular pen. It is obvious if I am holding the pen, or I pass it to you. This is a bit trickier when I have a digital pen. If I forward you a pen – how can you tell I haven’t also forwarded it to my friend Alex? Blockchain gives pens (or blocks) a history of ownership (a chain) so you can tell where each pen is (there are a finite number of pens). Each pen can only be in one place at a time and has had its own path there – if I gave you my pen, I no longer have one to forward to Alex.

Check the comments following the article as well, for additional insights.

Related: , , ,

Peter Thiel’s New Zealand plan to avoid the apocalypse. A good idea?

Thursday, 2 February, 2017

Unless you’ve been holed up in an underground bunker, you’ve probably heard that US entrepreneur Peter Thiel recently purchased land in the South Island of New Zealand, after also becoming a citizen. In anticipation of the apocalypse, we’re told. And it seems he’s not the only tech-billionaire to do something similar either.

The South Pacific nation is deemed the place to be on account of its relative isolation, and stable government. Personally, I think Thiel would have been better off keeping the idea to himself, as he’s probably inspired who knows how many others to head there, at whatever cost, in the event of global calamity. I know I’m going to.

Wes Siler, writing for Outside Online, also takes a dim view of Thiel’s plan, suggesting the one time Facebook angel investor, is more caught up in the hype surrounding the survivalism movement at present, than anything else.

Billionaires live in the same society we do, and are subject to the same cultural influences, and trends the rest of us are. Right now, survival is trendy. Particularly among people who like the idea of doing tough guy stuff, but don’t actually go out and do tough guy things. You get the feeling that doomsday prep is just a fun hobby, or mental puzzle for these dudes – one they’re able to indulge a little more than you or I might be able to. You buy a neon green tomahawk at Walmart just in case the zombies ever rise; Peter Thiel buys a 477-acre farm in New Zealand. Neither one will ever be used for its intended purpose.

And on the subject of the apocalypse, here’s a bonus, five survival tools you should never leave the house without. They’re certainly compact enough to carry around with you.

Related: , ,

Robots won’t take all jobs, they don’t know how to do all of them

Tuesday, 31 January, 2017

This is a topic we’re not going to stop hearing about: the threat to jobs from robots, or artificial intelligence. Robots can be taught to do one thing, and another, and they can perform those tasks well, but they still struggle to work in the same way as a person. A human has a mix of skills, flexibility, and judgement, something that cannot easily be automated.

But the new jobs panic is exaggerated and misplaced. For one thing, political and social caution may block some of the potential uses, such as self-driving cars. For another, many jobs will continue to require a blend of skills, flexibility and judgement that is difficult to automate. David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that such employment requires “tacit” expertise that cannot readily be codified.

A good job too. I’m (still) writing a book that’s set 400 years in the future. Robots and artificial intelligence feature. They do much of our heavy lifting, but people still have jobs of a sort. It seems to me there’d be no story if robots performed every last function, and people didn’t even need to do trivial things, such as make phone calls.

Related: , ,