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Dear Mitch,

I noticed you haven't posted any new questions/answers in a while, though that probably has to do with it being summer and all.  Anyway, a while back you alluded to the possibility that you would either gradually or all at once start giving away ideas for inventions that readers can try for themselves and either just use them personally, like with their classes and families and friends or actually try to market them and maybe even get rich from them.

At the time, I have to tell you, one of the other teachers in my department thought you must've been kidding or something, because none of us could figure out why if the ideas really were as good as a lot of people thought they'd be, you wouldn't just market them yourself.  (Especially after you went public with the fact that was the victim of a substantial burglary, which wasn't covered by insurance, and were even quoted as saying you hadn't quite figured out how to recoup enough of the loses from the warehouse, etc., to keep paying your interns and whoever helps you.)  All anyone noticed is that you pretty much stopped selling stuff online and for a while just concentrated on the question and answer section.  (Though I read somewhere that selling and shipping products had always been your least favorite thing that your company did.)

Anyway, I know you get a ton of questions asking about tricks for the SAT and the PSAT (and the SSAT, and other standardized tests), and you get another ton asking about how parents can help their kids memorize the multiplication tables and stuff like that, but I was just wondering, were you serious about giving out ideas for free for real inventions?  And if so, when do you think you might start?


John B.


Dear John B.,

I was serious about posting ideas for inventions that readers (many of our readers, anyway) would find fairly easy to use in their own lives or actually try to market them, and -- as the saying goes -- there's no time like the present. 

I should preface this new feature with a quick explanation:

I think it's natural for people to take for granted whatever it is that comes naturally to them, and they typically never give much thought to the fact that its ease to them does not in the least diminish the value of that skill or knack (or whatever it is) to others -- particularly, of course, others who find that skill or whole area of skills to be a challenge.  One example, ridiculously extreme to make the point clear, is the act of WALKING.  Most people do not think of walking to be something that is a particularly valuable ability.  But to infants crawling around on a carpet, struggling to pull themselves up to follow others into the next room every time someone exits, walking must indeed seem like a skill worthy of hours of practice and all the falls necessary to learn.  Even more dramatic, to people of any age confined to a wheelchair, the idea of walking without mechanical help must -- I would imagine -- seem more desireable than most of us fortunate enough to travel across streets and up hills unaided often pause to consider.  And so it is with the full range of acquired skills and natural abilitities most of us enjoy:  seeing, hearing, smelling, speaking, etc.  One step up (in my opinion, anyway) is singing.  Many of us (such as yours truly) cannot 'sing' a 'melody' without noting the (usually) polite but clear confusion or discomfort on the faces of those nearby, while others find all sorts of musical expression as easy as skipping or jumping.  Cooking, drawing, arriving promptly at meeting after meeting, and making others feel welcome and comfortable conversing despite striking cultural differences are just a few more examples that come to mind. 

Well, for some reason that I have never understood, though I am challenged to keep the surface of my desk neat, and just as challenged to make my way through paperwork as fast as it piles up, my mind has always come up with a dozen or so new ideas per week that have most frequently been called 'inventions'.  So what to do with them?  I used to spend time every night jotting them down, but that grew tiresome.  For a while I let people talk me into going through the patent process, but that's generally so slow that by the time anything sees the legal light of day, too much of the initial excitement and investment seems so faded that I'd find myself wondering why I had even bothered.

So, now, I am focusing on the two parts ofthe invention process that do excite me:  Cultivating the ideas as they spring to life in my messy mind, and watching others find ways to derive some pleasure or benefit from them.  If others can improve upon them, as many are likely to come out of me not fully hatched, so be it!  I congratulate anyone who does anything to make me feel I've contributed in some way, and I congratulate anyone who finds a way to profit from these relatively effortless products of my musings.  Perhaps, if someone follows through enough to make a fortune, that person will one day treat me to an ice cream cone, and (assuming the flavor is one I like) that interaction will make the process worth it.  For me, most of the fun is in that moment of execution.  And if you're not the type who finds such things going on in your head, try to catch an egg hatching.  Watch it quietly until a little chick pecks its way out and looks around.  That moment -- when a virtual nothing becomes a something -- is what it's all about.

Here's an idea...


The commonly seen clear-or-semi-opaque milk cartons should have a question printed on the outside.  I would make most of them mathematical brain twisters, but any worthy subject would do.  Even an interesting trivia question or two would make me pick such a container over the many other containers competing for my attention in the supermarket...

THEN,  as the liquid inside is consumed, the answer, which could be inexpensively printed or embossed on a celluloid divider inside the container, near the bottom, so that the majority of the product must first be consumed, is cleared of its liquid veil and the conundrum is answered.  Admittedly simple, but so is the concept behind the Q-tip.  And that seems to be satisfying customers with enough consistency to keep them coming back for more.  

Fear not:  Next time I'll avoid the build-up.

And I'll step up the 'invention' to the next level.

Hope somebody does something with this; it certainly would be fun (for me, at least) to spot such a container on a shelf in a supermarket.

-- Mitch