The light is a bottle. A Coke bottle. A one-liter Coke bottle, to be precise. You know it's a Coke bottle because it has that trademarked narrow-waisted shape.
The narrow waist is important because that's what allows it to be held securely, half in and half out, in a corrugated metal roof. The roof is on a shanty in the Philipines, and the bottle provides roughly the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent bulb (or a 13-watt CFL). With no electricity (which is important, because no electricity is one of the things with which these shanties are typically provided).
The bottle gets filled with water, and enough bleach to keep the algae from taking over. It's surrounded with an inexpensive collar of the same metal as the roof, and then mounted so the neck projects out. When the sun shines, the water refracts light inside the shanty and, at almost no cost, the interior that was dark is now far lighter.
Presumably, some evaporation will take place and the water will need to be topped up from time to time. But with that exception, there is no operating cost. The shanty becomes far more livable. The roof remains (or is restored to be) watertight.
As an exemplar, this is a pretty good one. A liter of light. An ecologically, economically and socially sustainable solution to a common everyday problem. A near-zero-energy solution. A durable solution. A low-tech solution. A grassroots solution (or in the process of becoming one.) Scale it up a bit, raise the price a couple of orders of magnitude, bring it out in a range of designer colors, and maybe it will even work in the developed world. (Why not?)
The bright shiny object looks like it might develop into a new political party. Not a traditional party, perhaps, but also not all that different from a traditional party.
Do we need a third party? Well, it seems pretty obvious that the number 2 isn't working out particularly well. One of the problems with a bipartisan system is that nobody has to campaign on the basis of their own virtues, they only campaign around their opponent's vices. (So few of us get to vote for anyone, we more often vote against.) In a two-way race, it's semi-credible to state that your opponent is the spawn of the devil. In a three-way contest, you're far less likely to be able to make the case that both of your opponents are spawn and still maintain an image of sanity. So while I'm not sure that AmericansElect is the specific caste of third party I'd choose for the country, I'm very much in favor of the number three. Or four or five, but there's no sense getting ridiculous. We just need to get away from two.
Is this third party going anywhere? Nobody knows. It seems to be reasonably well funded and reasonably well organized, but I'm not comfortable with my current state of knowledge regarding just who is doing the funding and the organizing. I do know that it's growing quickly (about 100,000 members a day, following a plug by Tom Friedman), and that, based on the profiles of answers to some basic questions, the current membership seems more like Social Democrats (well to the left of both existing parties) than the "radical middle" between two extremes that Friedman describes in his column.
Who knows, maybe the funders of AmericansElect will learn to be more careful what they wish for. Maybe a bunch of Wall Street money will end up paying for the infrastructure of a Main Street-dominated political force. Or maybe the whole thing will fizzle.
I do know that a number of talking heads, particularly of the Democratic and independent persuasions, are already in a tizzy. (Samples here and here.) The tizzy-ers may be right to disparage. On issues past, I've certainly agreed with folks like Ted Rall and Glenn Greenwald more often than I have with Tom Friedman. Maybe they'll be right, yet again.
But maybe not. Maybe the USA would be better off with a credible third political party. Maybe Washington would work better if the system got a bit of a shaking. Lord knows, it couldn't work any worse than it does right now.