Excuse me while I pee in my phone

Pee's Electric
Photo by Andy Martin

Chemists are working on two different approaches to generate electricity from urine.  While your pee doesn’t have enormous amounts of pent up energy, you do have enormous amounts of it.  Collectively, humans excrete over 10 billion liters of the stuff every day.

Gerardine Botte, a chemical engineer at Ohio University, is working on using urine to generate hydrogen, which could then be used in conventional hydrogen fuel cells.  The advantage of urine over water is that it requires only 25% of the energy required to liberate the hydrogen from a water molecule as from a molecule of urea.  This makes the process much more energy efficient.

Even more interesting is the work of Shanwen Tao of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK.  Tao is developing an electrolytic cell that directly converts urea to electricity.  The power outputs are relatively low so you’re unlikely to power your home with the family toilet anytime soon.  But it is about the right level to power small electronic devices.

If this works out, you may never have to leave the couch again.  Rather than getting up for a potty break, you just whizz in the phone or the remote or the DVR, or whatever is looking low on juice.  Who says the future doesn’t sound exciting?

Journalism malpractice: People not really fleeing stock market

Photo by Tracy Olson

Recent business news has been abuzz about small investors cashing out of their mutual funds to the tune of $33.12 billion. Depending on who you listened to, this allegedly reflected either a loss in faith in the economy, dire cash needs by small investors, or a return to the 1960’s era markets where individual investors were basically non-existent.  But everyone agreed this was a significant economic event.

This story started with Graham Bowley in the NY Times over the weekend and snowballed until it was making the rounds on most of the news networks yesterday.  MS-NBC’s Dylan Ratigan devoted a whole segment to the “crisis” on Tuesday’s show.  This might have been some crack reporting except for the fact that Bowley turns out to have been impressively wrong.

Felix Salmon actually bothered to recheck the facts, and it turns out that while Bowley was essentially right about the retreat from domestic mutual funds, he neglected to look at Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) or international mutual funds which grew suspiciously at a little short of $40 billion over the same period.

So the news really turns out to be that people reinvested in ETFs with more flexibility and lower cost structures than mutual funds and divested into more global portfolios.  Or perhaps it was seniors continuing to draw on their 401k mutual funds while younger working investors placed their money in ETFs.  Either way, that seems pretty darned sensible of them.  Sorry folks, no crisis to see here.  Please go back about your business.

The problem here is that the “crisis” was covered with great fanfare.  That will not be true of this news.  Rather, it will buried if mentioned at all.  The result being the meme about people fleeing the stock market will stick despite there being no truth to it.

Perhaps Bowley made an innocent mistake in his initial report.  But that doesn’t excuse all those who ran with the story.  What’s supposed to distinguish bloggers from professional journalists is that journalists are expected to double check the facts.  They are trusted to be correct.  Yet increasingly that is not the case.  Whether it is just over eagerness to report a breaking story in a world of ridiculously rapid news cycles, or if it’s a more deliberate attempt to sensationalize the news for the sake of ratings, it amounts to malpractice.

In other professions there are dire consequences for malpractice.  Whether you’re a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer malpractice can result in people being hurt.  Journalists should be held to these same high standards.  People make decisions based on information provided by journalists.  Decisions that influence public policy and ultimately all our lives.  That is no less impactful than malpractice in other professions.

This is a small example, but it’s indicative of a more endemic problem.  If journalists want to be valued and trusted, they need to step up to the plate, do the hard work, and get us the real truth we so desperately need.

Is Lazio chicken or smart to avoid debate?

Photo by Andrew Bishop

The New York GOP Gubernatorial primary race has taken a turn for the interesting as candidate Carl Paladino has unleashed “Little Ricky” (a staffer in a chicken suit) to dog his opponent Rick Lazio.  At issue is Lazio’s unwillingness to commit to a debate with Paladino, hence Paladino’s attempt to call him “chicken”.

On the one hand, it would seem Lazio is not really playing fair.  After all, voters should get to hear their candidates out, and political debates have long been the gold standard for sorting out potential politicians.

Yet on the other hand, Lazio has little to gain by engaging Paladino.  He’s currently enjoying a 30% lead in the polls.  Further, Lazio has the overwhelming support of the Republican party officials in New York.  Meanwhile, millionaire developer Paladino basically bought his way into the race and forced a primary against the GOP’s wishes.  And he’s threatening to run as a third party in November if he loses the GOP nod anyway.  Debating Paladino arguably only lends credibility to a fringe candidate.

Not that Paladino minds being on the fringe.  He’s increasingly positioning himself as a Tea Party candidate.  He’s even gone so far as to recommend New York’s prisons be turned into dormitories for the poor where they will be put to work for the state and taught lessons in personal hygiene.  After all, how does one achieve affluence if one doesn’t know how to properly use a loofah?  It would be incredible (and a little sad) if his plans to open indigent work camps resonated strongly with New York voters.  It certainly seems Paladino is more of an irritant to the GOP than a serious contender.

Still, Paladino is a valid candidate.  No one is questioning his right to run.  As a candidate, he should have the right to face off against his opponent, the right to take his shot.  If he’s really as far out there as he seems, Lazio should have no trouble taking him down.

Granted, Lazio, doesn’t have to debate Paladino… but he should.  Ideally, with both men wearing chicken suits.  That would be must-see TV.

Opposing a national local sales tax

The Main Street Fairness Act (HR 5660) is intended to get states and local governments the sales tax revenue they are owed from Internet sales, but it is the wrong solution to the problem.

Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt, along with five Democratic co-sponsors introduced the bill last month.  As proposed, it would allow states to optionally join in a compact that permits them to require all businesses to collect sales tax on every purchase by a customer living in that state.  Mercifully, it at least requires states to adhere to certain simplifications of, and provide for, uniformity of the state’s sales tax code in order to join.

The name of the bill and Delahunt’s own press release emphasize the need for this to level the playing field for online retailers.  Yet it’s not at all clear this is a boon to local businesses.  Repeated studies show that cost is at best a minor reason people shop online.  Certainly, there is not a significant number of customers avoiding local stores simply to avoid paying sales tax.

In many states, such as here in New York, sales tax is already required to be paid if the retailer has any brick & mortar presence in the state.  Further, the New York income tax form specifically requires you to report Internet or out of state purchases (or estimate them) so that the proper tax may be collected.  Therefore, much of the perceived cost savings doesn’t exist anyway.

While part of this bill is certainly intended to boost state sales tax revenues, it is likely to also hurt small retailers trying to do business online.  Online business is an increasingly big part of a small specialty shop’s business—even single proprietors.  Yet the sales tax laws, even with the proposed simplifications, still vary in both rates and products covered for each state.  In many states, the variances are by county.  This would almost demand that small businesses use some sort of service to automate the calculation of the appropriate tax to charge, and facilitate getting those funds paid to all the proper taxing authorities.  And that service is going to complicate their business and erode already small profit margins.  A pain that will less likely be felt by large national operations who already have ample infrastructure in place to handle the complexity.

Online sales are not going anywhere anytime soon.  They do erode from traditional local businesses, but they also provide an opportunity for a small business to reach a set of customers they never would have been able to dream of 50 years ago.  So rather than trying to prop up the dying business model, let’s try and enable the new one.

That could be accomplished by introducing a national sales tax.  That is, the policies for what products are subject to the tax, and the tax rate itself, are set uniformly at the national level.  The funds are collected centrally, but then redirected back out in their entirety to the states and counties of the purchasers.  This moves the administrative burden to the government (after all, they are the ones who want the money), and makes tax collection simple for businesses.

Politicians keep posturing about helping small businesses.  They often say how they are our future, and the means to restart the economy  Well here’s a perfect opportunity to put your legislation where your mouth is.  It’s time to truly reform an old system rather than just adding more duct tape to the ancient one whose time has long passed.

Is “Burn a Quran Day” insensitive?

Photo by crystalina on Wikipedia

Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida is planning “Burn a Quran” day to honor the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  There is a concern this will spark more than a little outrage from the Muslim community both here and abroad.

Recently I wrote about there seeming to be a general consensus that building the so-called ground zero mosque was legal, but many felt that even so, it was still insensitive of the Muslim community to not take into account the feelings of the 9/11 survivors.  Further, I asserted that the only way for the proposed mosque to be an insult was if someone was prejudiced against all Muslims and holding them accountable for the WTC attacks—a point reinforced by the planned book burning which clearly is blaming all of Islam for 9/11.  Further, are all Christians prepared to take responsibility for the Quran burnings?  If not, then why are all Muslims responsible for 9/11?  Still, several people wrote in response to that article that even if the emotional reaction to the planned construction was irrationally prejudiced, it was still appropriate to consider people’s feelings.

There are a couple of problems with that line of reasoning.  First and foremost is that if hurting the feelings of groups of Americans really mattered, then events like “Burn a Quran Day” would be generating outrage at the level similar to the Manhattan mosque.  But there is barely a peep in the media.  Is this simply too small an event to get noticed?  Gen. David Petraeus doesn’t think so, and has expressed concern that should this go forward it will place his troops in the Middle East at significant risk of reprisal.  Further, can you imagine the outrage from politicians and the media if an imam were planning a “Burn the Bible Day” in Kuwait?

Clearly the issue here is not about respecting the feelings of others in general.  But perhaps it’s not everyone’s feelings who count.  Perhaps the issue is that 9/11 was such a significant physical, emotional, and psychological scar that we owe special deference to the site and to the families and friends of those who died or were injured there.  How then do you reconcile that House Republicans overwhelmingly drove the defeat of the  9/11 health bill.  This fully paid for bill provided medical assistance to 9/11 survivors and their families now suffering aftereffects from the disaster.  Yet the same group that killed this bill is now crowing the loudest about the proposed Muslim Park51 Community Center.

It seems 9/11 is only sacred when it’s politically opportune.  And that perhaps is the key lesson in all this.  “9/11” is politically powerful.  George Bush was reelected on it in 2004.  Rudy Giuliani’s entire 2008 Presidential bid was based on it.  It has been used as a basis for justifying the Patriot Act, rendition, torture, and other policies and programs that should make freedom loving Americans cringe.

9/11 was the most significant American tragedy of our time.  We should never forget that.  We should honor it, and the men and women who suffered because of it, and continue to suffer.  But there is no honor in using it as a political lever as is being done with the mosque controversy.  And there is no honor in Terry Jones’ plans to burn Qurans.  We’re better than that—at least we profess to be.  It’s time to start acting that way.