Uselessness Is The Bastard Son Of Invention

If you were going to invent something, what would it be? A light bulb that never burns out? A car that runs on unrented Waterworld videos? How about a remote control that works when you're sitting in traffic so you can change your current life to, say, a Caribbean channel? Whatever it would be, chances are it would better mankind. Or at least make life easier, simpler, and hopefully Carrot Top-free.

But inventors don't think like you and me. They're more concerned with getting those pesky ideas out of their brain and into the patent office so they have room to store more important things, like their birth date, home address, and how to use a comb. They certainly have no shortage of ideas. It's difficult to find out just how many patents have been issued for inventions over the years, but one online database catalogs over 30 million of them from around the world. With that many it shouldn't come as a surprise that one or two are for useless items. Okay, so chances are 29,898,013 are useless. Who's counting?

Take the invention patented by Albert Cohen of Troy, NY for an "Apparatus for simulating a 'high five'." It's composed of an artificial hand and arm that swing forward to perform a congratulatory high five, perfect for those dorks who always miss the other high-fiver's hand and then grin sheepishly hoping no one, including the other person, noticed. Amazingly, a patent search turns up no other references to high fiving. This means Cohen has the market all to himself, yet he doesn't seem to be taking advantage of it since I haven't seen them in any store. Of course I don't usually hang around Klutzes-R-Us. Usually being the imperative word.

A big market for the La-Z High-Fiver™ would be those people who over high-five. You know, the ones who take every opportunity to congratulate each other, including when their favorite chess team takes a rook, when they cross the street successfully, and when a girl actually speaks to them, even if all she said was, "Leave me alone or I'm calling the police." But since those people don't have the La-Z High-Fiver to help them out, they might consider giving their arm a much needed rest by using the Motorized Ice Cream Cone patented by Richard Hartman of Issaquah, WA. All you do is fill it with ice cream, stick out your tongue, press a button, and the cone spins around for you. Hopefully it comes with a warning sticker not to use it with a Popsicle lest your tongue stick to it, much like the mid-winter tongue-on-the-flagpole trick your brother tried to talk you into, only this time with a motor attached.

Another charmingly useless patent is for a Gravity Powered Shoe Air Conditioner. Unfortunately it turns out gravity powers the air conditioner, not the shoe. Maybe next patent. The shoe contains a small bellows, a compressor, an evaporator, and liquid-filled heat exchange coils so it cools your feet as you walk. This is a good thing since with all that extra equipment in your shoe your feet are bound to get pretty hot. The patent says the same principle can also be used to heat a shoe. If this is correct, it would put this innovation on par with the thermos bottle for the Intelligent Invention Of All Time award. After all, a thermos keeps hot food hot and cold food cold. How does it know when to do which?

Since Kool Kicks™ gravity-powered air conditioned shoes are bound to be a little on the heavy side, they'll probably need a better way to help them stay on, which is why it's a good thing Aaron Harrellin invented the Pneumatic Shoe Lacing Apparatus. It uses "a plurality of securement webs"--whatever that may mean, a crank pulley, and a gas cylinder to -- as best I can gather -- help you lace your shoes, something any five-year-old can achieve without having to resort to three of the six basic types of machine. It's a shame Harrellin couldn't have worked in a lever, inclined plane, and wedge or he might have woken up on Christmas morning to find a Nobel Prize in his stocking.

None of these, however, may be quite as useless as the Force-Sensitive, Sound-Playing Condom. Paul Lyons holds the patent on this marvel of 20th century technology which plays a song during intercourse, the on-off switch being tripped when your bodies, uh, meet. This is the perfect thing for those times when there's no Barry White CD handy, the bed doesn't squeak, or your partner equates silence with ecstatic feedback. Unfortunately you can't get them at your local drugstore. Yet. I suspect that's because Lyons had trouble getting the rights to use Bob Marley's Get Up, Stand Up; Easy to Be Hard from Hair; and the Bee Gees' How Deep is Your Love. Face it, Killing Me Softly just doesn't cut it at a time like that.

While none of these meet the high standard set by such patents as the phonograph, safety pin, or paper clip, you can't expect that from every invention. Yet it would be nice if they'd focus on things we really need. You know, like a microwave oven with a "Reverse" button for those times when we overcook our dinner. Or a voicemail system which lets you go back in and delete the stupid message you just left someone before they discover just how stupid you can really be. Or maybe a way to email an electric shock to anyone who routinely hits "Reply to all," puts you on their joke forwarding list, or sends 2-meg attachments in a format your computer can't understand without warning. Now we're talking useful.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email: md@maddogproductions.com

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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