Toilet talk

An unlikely topic for an article in tech magazine Wired (and Wired UK, where I saw it), but ultimately an important once. Joshua Davis’ article appears to have been published in the US as Pissing Match: Is the World Ready for the Waterless Urinal?, although my print copy of the UK edition has the more descriptive The Fight To Stop Flushing.  Anyway, the article is about inventor (and former VP of the Disney Channel!) James Krug and his work on the ‘waterless urinal’.  But aside from that, it’s actually an interesting tale about regulation, technology and innovation.  Bear in mind, of course, that Wired’s virtual house style is a type of libertarian technophilia (most memorably dissected by the underappreciated Patrice Flichy, last mentioned in this post), and the presentation of the urinal question is in this tradition.  It’s very well written, whatever your views on that issue, though.  Basically, Krug has tried to promote the urinal that doesn’t need flushing (instead using gravity and a cartridge containing liquid ‘long-chain fatty alcohol’).  Various experiments appear to verify or challenge his claims about how it is ‘better’ than the traditional water-using system.

Two aspects of the story fascinated me – the role played by plumbers’ unions (in criticising the concept on scientific grounds, but – in the views of some – also to protect jobs), and the impact of the non-binding ‘model codes’ (sounds familiar?) for plumbing that many municipal authorities adopt without significant amendment.  So for Krug, or other proponents of new technologies, getting to a point where the model code is not an obstacle to your system is an important determinant of success or failure.  And the plumbers do end up playing a significant and complex role – just like the story of the actual ‘Luddites’ is much more interesting than the trite use of the phrase in the present day would suggest.

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