Good Ideas for Somebody Else to Act On

April 15, 2011 at 11:37 am (By Amba)

Isn’t it fun to be an irresponsible innovator who only has ideas and never does anything about them?

Here are two of mine.  Tell me why they are impossible.

1.)  The Capitalist WPA.  a consortium of venture philanthropists forming companies staffed by the long-term unemployed.  Identify a niche — a product or service that could be provided domestically at competitive rates.  It would be a way of doing well by doing good. The country is groaning with idle talent and skill. Many have given up looking for work, concluding it’s hopeless. They would work for competitive pay and a stake in the ventures, such as an ESOP.  (OK, Maxwell, shoot it down.)

2.) The Bio-Battery.  No one even seems to notice how absurd it is that, for all the power and sophistication of our electronic gadgetry, we can’t stray more than a few hours from the nearest electrical outlet.  How humiliating!  We’re tethered to the power grid like a dog on a leash.  Whoever invents a truly long-lived battery will be the Edison and Garibaldi of the 21st century rolled into one.

So I ask:  why can’t we use our own bodies, pumping with mechanical work, seething with electricity, as a source of power?  Why couldn’t our everyday movements (already harnessed by self-winding watches) spin tiny generators?  What if we could simply turn a little generator with a foot pedal while we worked?  (Ooh! The possibilities for new repetitive-stress injuries!)  What about a chest band that converted the movements of our breathing into electricity?  What if our exhalations could spin a tiny windmill?  What if we could put on a lightweight EEG-like headband and harvest the electrical fields of our brains?  Has any of this been tried?  (My guess is that it wouldn’t produce enough electricity, but this is a challenge for inventors at both ends—the devices that demand so much juice, and step-up or movement-amplification technology at the supply end.)


  1. amba12 said,

    If my dad sees this, he will remind me of his longtime dream of a fart-powered vehicle. Little methane-powered biogas generators, anyone?

  2. Maxwell James said,

    Regarding the Capitalist WPA – I think the philanthrophic world is actually moving in that direction in many ways. See here for example. I would personally have preferred they went with ESOPs rather than worker coops, but well, old habits die hard.

    Some influential foundations are also making creative uses of their endowments through Mission Related Investing, which can go into socially-minded businesses as well as nonprofits. The Community Investment Index is one such vehicle, & it’s screened for things like job quality.

    As to whether your experiment would work – well, maybe. I certainly think it would be worth trying! But some negatives are: a) Foundations are generally not that competent in the sphere of business development; b) Unemployed people, as a group, do not necessarily have skill sets that go well together; c) a lot of unemployed people were laid off from sectors that had grown too big in the bubble (esp. construction), and as a result there just isn’t enough demand for their established skills, even if they were part of new businesses.

    Regarding your comment, *snort*.

  3. amba12 said,

    Hey!! Snort power?? We could be The Irony Age.

    There is a whole new generation of foundations started by new-economy entrepreneurs that insist on being a lot more competent in business development.

    Some concentrated retraining could be part of the deal.

  4. Tim said,

    Human-generated power has interested me for a long time. One basement project (out of many, more pressing ones) that I’d like to build is a bicycle-powered generator. There’s an interesting, little paper on the potential of pedal power here.

    Unfortunately, it seems the amounts of pedal power you could generate, while greater, say, than a small windmill in a mediocre location, are not all that useful.  Here’s one of the conclusions from the linked article:

    The power levels that a human being can produce through pedaling
    depend on how strong the pedaler is and on how long he or she
    needs to pedal. If the task to be powered will continue for
    hours at a time, 75 watts mechanical power is generally
    considered the limit for a larger, healthy non-athlete. A healthy
    athletic person of the same build might produce up to twice this
    amount. A person who is smaller and less well nourished, but not
    ill, would produce less; the estimate for such a person should
    Probably be 50 watts for the same kind of power production over
    an extended period.

    When I consider my 17″ MacBook Pro can draw as much as 85 watts while charging, and is designed to dissipate 110 watts if necessary, I think my electrical ambitions may be misplaced, and my time better spent doing paying, or at least amusing work, all the while relaxing near an outlet in a less-than-carbon-neutral posture on my comfy sofa.

    Maybe someday better batteries and lower-powered devices will appear, but until then, I make damned sure my electric bill is paid up.

  5. Icepick said,

    Ah, we don’t need a WPA program. Our wages and working standards are falling fast enough that we’re starting to leach jobs from more expensive countries. We’re gaining ground in the race to the bottom!

  6. amba12 said,

    That really is bitterly funny.

  7. Louise Mowder said,

    “What if we could put on a lightweight EEG-like headband and harvest the electrical fields of our brains?”

    That was the whole theory behind the use of humans, i.e. “copper-tops”, as batteries in “The Matrix” movies.

  8. chickelit said,

    Pedal-powered TV link. I once heard about a gym where the people on exercise bikes were powering their TV. Can’t find the link. Maybe it was an urban legend.

    I’m going to snoop around the US Patent office website to see if there is any “prior art” for your ideas. :)

    Battery technology has come a long ways with the advent of lithium ion batteries. It’s in the Chevy Volt. Priuses (Prii?) use nickel metal hydride (NiMH). I hope the Volt wins the battle.

  9. chickelit said,

    That really is bitterly funny.

    The Salon author does seem a tad bitter.

  10. chickelit said,

    I think passive solar heating is greatly underutilized. There was a chemistry prof at the UW Madison named Farrington Daniels (love the name!) who pioneered many practical uses solar energy. He was before my time at the UW, but his legacy was still around and I studied his textbook.

    Sorry I linked to Wiki- I know you don’t care for it–ut as Ron said, it’s a starting place.

  11. chickelit said,

    Windmills are fine inventions but the ancient Dutch technology of using them to pump water behind dams may be the most pratical use for them. They can work all day and night against gravity. A turbine generator can make electricity when the winds are calm.

    Biomass as fuels for power plants make more sense than fermenting ethanol out of crops. Of course things have to be dried out on a massive scale first (solar?) but there is always another use for the water, e.g. to grow the plants. Farm the desert.

  12. brunobaby said,

    Our wages and working standards are falling fast enough that we’re starting to leach jobs from more expensive countries. We’re gaining ground in the race to the bottom!

    Companies that used to outsource their production and call centers to India are now starting to outsource them to Wheeling, West Virginia.

    I can imagine a bunch of guys sitting in an office in Bombay: “Give it to the Americans. They work cheaply.”

  13. wj said,

    Outsourcing was always about reducing costs by ignoring the differences in capability that actually exist.

    If you’re a senior executive, you don’t typically know anything about the nuts and bolts of how your company works (hence the popularity of a show like Undercover Boss). So, since you don’t realize that someone in India (to pick just one example) may have the paper credentials to support your computer systems, what he doesn’t have is the 2-3 decades of experience which would let him solve a non-trivial problem when (and definitely not if) one arises.

    I remember with some amusement the time a couple of years ago when I got a job offer . . . from one of the big Indian out-sourcing firms (Tata, as I recall). It turns out they needed someone in my field to fulfill one of their contracts — and there simply wasn’t anyone in India who could do it. Hence their willingness to pay (high) US salaries to get someone. (And no, I didn’t take the job.)

    Sometimes, you don’t need lower wages to compete; you just need a little better knowledge on the part of the guy making the decisions.

  14. karen said,

    Lowell Mountain is the future home to about 25-30 wind towers, a project for a company from France, i believe- and a huge mistake, IMhumbleO. I,m not usually a NIMBY type of gal- i live on a farm and you should see the stuff IN MBY. Or, more specifically- alongside my driveway(10 calf hutches). I just think leveling a mountain range to produce a questionable amt of energy– and the added destruction of habitat… i have a small amt of knowledge in this subject as i was getting my BA in Enviro Science(i had 8 classes left to take)before i met my husband:0). I’m sure you could google that fiasco- i don’t do linkys.

    Anyway- we have a lot of little green projects in VT. Or, issues- 1/2 of 1, etcetc. Now- they are(must be the powers that be- liberally)talking of banning choco milk from schools. How to get kids to drink ~white,plain~ milk?

    I always thought it would be so cool for a processing plant/farm, like Monument Farms, to adopt a school and supply milk to them. Wouldn’t it be cool if the kids could get pics or video of the cows that produced the milk- keep the classes updated on the health and repro of the cows that make their milk. Since our cows are all named- kids could personalize and say stuff like: “Look how cute Paula’s calf, Pansy-is.” (Our cow, Paula- calved night before last and my husband named the baby Pansy) Or, “Wow, Libby’s milk sure is sweet- 3.9% fat- 3.2% protein.” Maybe once a year, a field trip,literally, could happen and the kids could kiss the cows that supply the milk.

    Pretty Lib thinking for a Conservative soul, eh? Must be my taste in ambivalence.

  15. karen said,

    Just remember- if that ever happened; you heard it here, 1st:0).

  16. amba12 said,

    That’s not a lib or conserv idea, Karen — just a wonderful one.

  17. karen said,

    :00- thank you!!

    I came up w/it as a way for the ~poor farmer~ to survive, originally. Kinda like– adopt a farm, or adopt a cow. We’d get $$$$, provide some kind of contact w/our animals for folks in return and then we’d have more cash to work w/.

    In a way, it would work, but really- in reality- i don’t think so. Farming is private and that would be inviting people who don’t understand the tactics- not all of which seem appropriate or whatever- to weigh in on things that don’t concern them. Farming, it’s a business. Yet, it deals w/living creatures, beasts- big-ass beasts- that are unpredictable and have a ~shelf life~ all their own and subject to the management.

    Does that make sense? You can’t say a few kind words and flush a cow carcass down the toilet if you find it belly up in the bowl. It’s a hard life, a sad life- a heart breaking life. Yet- it’s a living.

    We were offered the farm i grew up on the other day. It’s been out of my family for about 19 yrs- and it’s depressed down to the dirt. !00’s of 1000’s of $$$$ to build back up. I’m pretty bummed, but after getting burned so badly on the (other family)transaction two yrs ago- i think i own that ~once bitten…~ saying. That breaks my heart, though.

  18. karen said,

    heh– the face: :0).
    Amazing what happens when one finger screws up!

  19. amba12 said,

    Damn it, Karen. You’re a writer. You have to write. Write, I don’t know, an article or a memoir about farming and cows.

  20. karen said,

    i don’t think i could ever write, amba- not professionally. Hell, i give our organic eggs away!!! Grain prices being what they are and i wish every day that this blogpod lived in the Kingdom. I’d love to give my friends, here, eggs.

    I have a little pencil drawing i did at about age 8 of my favourite cow back then on the day she was ~shipped~ for beef. Her name was Melody and i framed her black and white face w/little notes. I would never encourage anyone to farm, yet i could never see myself anywhere else. And i’m the one that has no sense of boundaries- fenced in on my little piece of land.

  21. amba12 said,

    What “professionally”? Just write. Storytell. Ramble, free associate. Tell us. It wouldn’t take much to combine some of your comments into a guest post, a meditative diary of . . . a milkmaid.

  22. karen said,

    If i find the right picture to explain the love of this life- and a camera!!- i’ll definitely write something. The light of moments that make it all worth while in between the dark of loss.

    I haven’t written poems in a couple/few yrs, but this is one:

    We call them down and dead-
    Recycling the gift of life 2 death
    w/no waste and a 25$ fee.


    white&wide w/worldly eyes
    + a hide that-
    in the end- wasn’t tough
    enough to prevent penetration
    from a 30-odd-6.
    Winched unceremoniously
    up in2 the back of the Bus
    w/her stiff sisters
    never 2 complain and as they say:

    That’s Farming.

  23. karen said,

    Thinking about it this morning- i have to say that, as hard as farming is- i’m really a coward. I don’t have the courage or the energy suited for working w/people, i get them all confused w/my whirling thoughts via-ducted through my mouth:0).

    Down and dead isn’t actually what we call the animal- although a ~down cow~ is called a downer, in more ways than one, eh? No, down and dead was what we called the rendering company that came by farms on certain days to pick up the cows that had no more hope- or life. The driver came equipped w/the right ammo to do the job; he’d talk to her, pat her on the head, say her name and put her away.

  24. amba12 said,

    Karen, we could combine some of your comments into a guest post(s) — or you could start a blog — and call it “Dear Dairy” (ouch! I think I’m channeling Ruth Anne).

  25. karen said,

    I have thought of a blog– i think i’d call it …Different Day.
    Proceeding the … would be Same shit:0).

    Only, that would be an inside joke!!

  26. Melinda said,

    Too bad there’s no “Like” button for Karen’s last comment, the way there is on Facebook. But then again, Facebook is making me lazy enough as it is.

  27. karen said,


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