Cool Idea #9: Tatoeba

Anybody who’s taken a language course in high school or college is familiar with the thick two-way dictionaries made for learners. For those of us who are native English speakers with some experience in our target languages, those are pretty useful. But too often, their entries are useless to new students. When I took my first Spanish class, for example, I had no clue how to conjugate ser (to be) in the preterite tense, let alone what the preterite tense was. The dictionary didn’t provide that, and because of this I had no way to express things other than in the present tense.

I could elaborate more, but I’ve got a ton of other work to do right now, so I’ll have to cut this a little short. What I’m trying to say is that traditional dictionaries are great tools for seasoned language learners who just can’t recall the right word. When it comes to helping the new students, though, they fall flat because the words exist on their own. Tatoeba takes a different approach by giving translations of sentences, not individual words. Because everything is generated by users who are for the most part accessible and because it teaches with actual examples as opposed to rules, I think Tatoeba could be a great way to pick up a language.

Here are all the versions of “My name is Jack.” And here’s a video explaining the idea behind Tatoeba.

This is a great idea, and I’ve already started translating some sentences in English, Spanish, and Ukrainian. But I also see a whole lot of untapped potential. As translation and language education become more open and more collaborative processes, this same concept of bit-by-bit translation across multiple languages can be exported. I’d like to see within the next few years a large-scale project focused on translating books in the public domain. A crowdsourced version of say, Moby-Dick in Esperanto would be a great read, if you ask me.

One issue: I can’t seem to get Arabic text (or anything else written from left to right) to type correctly. Maybe it’s just me, though.


Cool Idea #5: The Secret Stash Project

The Secret Stash Project can be useful to spies, secret agents, and you.

What is it? Here’s what the project’s official website tells us.

This project is about concealing valuables, secrets, bad habits and personal information in our workplaces. Here, hidden spaces/ messages were created within 8 general objects such as wood boards, lamps and disposable coffee cups.

Why doing this?

We all have the need of hiding.

We hide our valuables from being stolen, we conceal our past from our loved ones, we never show our real side to colleagues, we all have secrets. Or, sometimes we just want to keep something only for ourselves.


Utilize stereotypes and visual camouflage.

We make judgments based mainly on our experiences and what we see. This dependency on visual information can create large blind spots. Thus, usual stereotypes of how we perceive solid, transparency and lighting are employed in this project to play with notions of ‘solid and void’, and ‘true and false’.

In essence, the project is just a clever way of utilizing the ways that our minds fill in the blanks. When we see a nondescript box for a chessboard, for example, we more or less automatically assume that the pieces inside and that the box is just two five-sided pieces of cardboard that fit with each other. By utilizing the mental processes behind the assumption, the Secret Stash Project allows for the concealment of objects of value. The box may just be the uppermost piece of cardboard, or it may not store a chess set.

I like this idea mainly for the items that it has spawned. Some of the ones that I’ve heard of probably came about independently, but the ones like the book used as a Kindle case on The Compost Pile and the implementations shown in the video (link to Vimeo) on Yiting Cheng’s website are directly related to the project as I know it.

If you’ve seen any cool secret stashes or products that make use of assumptions, please share them below. Do not include ideas that are illegal.

Idea #15: Find primordial language by using an emotional database


For decades–or maybe even centuries–scholars and enthusiasts have been fascinated by the pursuit of an ancestral language that all humans trace their native tongues back to. There are several theories and methods concerning how exactly to find roots common to all words. However, current methods all seem a bit homogeneous. From my understanding, they tend to use brute force to analyze words across several languages, viewing the vowels and consonants until some semblance of a pattern emerges from the jumble. So far, it’s worked to some extent, with experts having constructed a vocabulary of over 500 words in a language they call “Nostratic.” It is the oldest vocabulary we’ve been able to find.

Nostratic was spoken about 20,000 years ago. A Proto-Human Language, on the other hand, may be up to 180,000 years older. That leaves quite a few years that we know nothing about, language-wise. However, I believe that a new method may be able to narrow this gap significantly.

The Concept:

Darwin was one of the first to establish the idea that emotions–more specifically, the facial expressions associated with them–are universal among humans. This has recently been proven true by researchers such as David Matsumoto. It’s arguable that because these expressions shape the face when they are made, they can influence the sounds people make when speaking while they express an emotion, in terms of both vowel pitch and actual consonants. If this is valid, then we can use  the “emotional value” of each word in several languages to see which ones match. Back when human brains were first developing Broca’s Areas, which are responsible for speech, humans had probably already been able to feel emotion. Assuming that our ancestors did what was most convenient to them, it’s possible that they assigned easy-to-make  sounds to objects with emotional associations. If, say, a fire made Uggabugga (by the way, how was he named?) happy, he may have started referring to it with sounds that are convenient to make while smiling.

The approach requires the construction of a place for several people to find words in several languages. They can look at a word, then classify it emotionally. Is it a happy word? An angry word? An icky word? And so on. Using this will help to create a list of words  strongly associated with certain emotions. Additionally, participants can create a list of words that come to mind when a certain phrase is read. This will build a thesaurus of sorts.

Once enough data has been gathered on a word, researchers can use its emotional classification to determine whether it fits with the idea of convenience. If “fire” is actually a term people associate with happiness, then combining this fact with research on happy sounds can be used to divine what Uggabugga used to call a flame.

The thesaurus can be used to see if words have a common root in the past, even if they sound different and are used in the same language.

The Pros:

  • All that’s required to collect the data is a set of dictionaries and a wiki-like website in which users find and evaluate words.
  • This approach crowdsources much of the “grunt work” of rating words, so quite a bit of the research more or less does itself.
  • Creating the “thesaurus” I mentioned can be done by several means such as web games, meaning that the data is more likely to be pure than it would be if participants were focused on finding an ancient language with their input.

The Cons:

  • This will likely have to be Internet-based, so it’s likely that researchers will run into trolls.
  • It’s possible that emotional reactions to objects have changed over the ages, so researchers may be working with improper data in some cases.
  • This will only provide the framework for a very old language. Unless outside methodology were to be implemented after conclusions have been made, we would still not know the language’s grammar system or how exactly it evolved into dialects.

Idea #10: A TV series in which charities compete


Shows like Dragon’s Den, The Apprentice, and American Idol (as well as all the other Idol shows)  all have massive appeal, and I’d like to think that it’s because they have the elements of competition that people can connect to.  Watching somebody go from rags to riches in this way is the 21st century’s equivalent of a Horatio Alger Jr. novel. Whether it’s a singer getting a record deal for his musical talent or an entrepreneur scoring a business deal for her startup’s big idea, viewers appreciate seeing somebody succeed. However, I think that there’s a subgenre missing in this mix. Why not introduce competition among charitable startups?

The Concept:

First, assemble a team of successful individuals who want to donate and act as judges, like the equivalent of Simon Cowell et al, but with money like Donald Trump. Have nonprofit entrepreneurs compete, in a method that blends Shark Tank with The Apprentice, to secure funding from the judges. During the first few rounds, the contestants must pitch successfully in order to impress the judges and viewers. After that, they must successfully complete tasks, The Apprentice-style, to avoid elimination. The last nonprofit standing gets the most money as well as an advertising campaign with the network the show airs on, as well as other benefits that the investors designate beforehand.

Competitors can be split into two categories: those with nonprofits (such as a person trying to promote literacy in a certain part of the world), and those with ideas that nonprofits can use (such as a new way to encourage the public to volunteer for any cause). Each competitor with an actual nonprofit provides information on how to donate, and that information is broadcast along with his/her time on the air.

To ensure that these startups have higher success rates than most, each judge must agree to contribute a minimum amount to each cause that is presented. As contestants are eliminated, that minimum amount is raised from episode to episode, raising the stakes as well.

The Pros:

  • First, the obvious. This show helps charities. Charities are usually for a good cause, which makes the world a better place. In conclusion, this series will help to make the world a better place.
  • The unfortunate fact is that a large number of people just aren’t inclined to donate their money or time, even to good causes.  Something like this can help bring charitable acts to a more prominent position, and the peer pressure this puts on the Scrooges of the world can go a long way towards making them donate.
  • Because each nonprofit’s’ information is broadcast on TV, charitable ventures get both money from the judges and publicity from the network that airs the show. They benefit by obtaining donors almost immediately after the episode airs, unlike for-profit startups on Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank. In essence, this show can serve as a platform for new charities to get much-needed publicity.
  • The split between those with charities and those with ideas for charities can be used to create group dynamics among the contestants and give the show more dimensions. All of this lends the series a little bit more appeal to viewers who like competitive reality TV.

The Cons:

  • Understandably, to some people it might be upsetting to think of the idea that charities must compete to earn funding. After all, isn’t it just some greedy producer capitalizing on the help needed for urgent causes? However, charities must compete for donors today, anyway. Additionally, with this idea, people calling it kitschy might actually help the causes identified in the show. Those who support it are likely to donate even more money in response to social adversity.
  • There is an issue if this series is recorded beforehand, and it is related to the idea of emergencies that require immediate response. If this show had been in the middle of a season when a catastrophe like the Haitian earthquake occurred, charities for Haiti wouldn’t be able to have as prominent a role as they needed.
    • A solution to this might exist in only pre-recording the first few rounds, and creating the tasks from week to week, tying them to current events.
  • Some nonprofits are politically polarizing, so it might not be a good idea to feature them except in pairs. This fact either leads to the omission of important causes that need money or bickering between contestants pushing for opposite causes. Neither option is very desirable.

Idea #7: Start a temporary blog for school subjects


Whether for the SAT, AP Exams, finals, or other tough tests in our academic lives, we all know the feeling of not having studied enough. We put things off until the end, then we cram the day before the big exam. That night, we have trouble sleeping, often laying in bed for about an hour. We wake up a couple of times in the night, then try desperately to fall back asleep. We finally quit when we wake up about an hour before usual. Test day greets us with a small adrenaline rush followed by a huge crash, sometimes during the exam. All in all, not studying is not a good feeling.

The Concept:

Prevent that feeling by starting a blog dedicated to studying a topic you will have a big test in. Set up a blog in about an hour, then kick things off with your first post two or three weeks before the big event, whatever it is (a totally-not-tiny test, a due date for a prodigious project, an enormous essay, and so on). Before class one day, get permission from your teacher or professor to make an announcement. In that announcement, share the URL with your classmates as well as a brief explanation of what you’re doing. It’s important to make sure your classmates understand what you’re doing.

Once people know about it, keep updating the blog with information relevant to your topic. Blogging for your Biology class? Inundate your blog with your take on adaptation, Linnaean taxonomy, Mendel, and interesting phenomena. Include the occasional TED Talk. Continue posts of a similar nature until a few days after the event occurs, then quit. Either remove everything or leave the site up for others to study from.

The Pros:

  • Depending on the quality and success of what you create, this may (or may not) floor colleges/employers.
  • By means of “Internet Immersion,” maintaining a blog about a topic does wonders for your knowledge on it. This translates to a better grade.
    • Because of said immersion, you might begin to draw metaphors between your real-life experiences and your classroom education, which is kind of cool.
  • The experience gained is both fun and valuable, as it doesn’t hurt to know a little bit about web publishing.
  • Your writing skills may improve, as will your connection with your peers.
  • This makes it clear to your instructor that you’re serious about his or her subject. In case you ever need it, you’ll probably be given some slack.
  • You’re filling a very specific niche in doing this, so you will likely get more views than you would with your average blog. If you’d like to start a website or blog about something else, the momentum from this can help accelerate your site’s growth.
  • There’s a warm, fuzzy feeling you get from helping your classmates study.

The Cons:

  • This should take time, which you may not have.
  • There’s a huge amount of accountability if you throw out false information and your peers believe it’s true.
  • For the few weeks that you operate the blog, you will become a geek. To cope, just remind yourself that the geeks shall inherit the Earth.
  • From the experience I’ve had so far, things will start out slow. To bring your view count up, include a means for your classmates to share what they’ve learned.
  • The big idea is building enthusiasm for the subject you cover, so be prepared to dive headfirst into a strange clan of nerds discussing Economics, Calculus, World History, Psychology, or whatever your subject is. (On the other hand, the blog could be considered a nice bit of in-depth journalism.)
  • For some, staying on-topic may be difficult.
  • This hasn’t happened to me so far, but you may be tempted to post a MySpace-style rant about something completely unrelated to your topic. Do not do it. Even if your best friend dies, post nothing more than a short note, if that, on the blog. Regardless of what happens, don’t lash out, reminisce, or do anything else that equates to making a scene on the Internet. That sounds cold, but stuff like that is better done on a site like Facebook anyway.


As stated in a previous post, I’m currently doing exactly this with a blog. It’s called Study for Econ. Check out one of my more popular posts here.

Idea #3: Start Facebook groups in competition over how to pronounce 2010


A few years ago, I remember reading a blog or watching something on TV that brought up the question over how people will end up pronouncing the name of the year 2010. It got me thinking, but it was always in the back of my mind. Now, 2010 is officially upon us.

The concept:

Just like this and this, there are Facebook groups and pages in direct competition with others. Why not apply that to the above debate? Create two (or three) groups or pages, one for “twenty ten” and one for “two thousand ten.” If it’s necessary, “two thousand and ten” may need its own group. Once they’re done and the people invited, let the fun begin.

The Pros:

  • Admittedly, not many except the fun. There’s no big cause here. Regardless, it’s probably worth a shot.
  • If this takes off, there’s some notoriety there for whoever starts each group.

The Cons:

  • Because this is so simple, there are very few downsides.
  • The only big one I can think of is that New Year has already occurred. There is less hype than before. At the same time, this could work if it picks up momentum over the holiday weekend, when people see a little bit less of each other and therefore aren’t able to share how they pronounce 2010 in person.


I just thought I’d share a cool picture.  Click here to see a shot of fireworks coming off the Sydney Harbour Bridge.