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Why Does the Shower Curtain Always Try to Get Me?

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For those of you who take baths or are simply unconcerned with hygiene, let me explain the horror that is the “shower curtain effect.” You get in a nice hot shower first thing in the morning. You’re barely awake, but the womb-like confines offer the perfect space to transition from sleepy cretin to functioning human. Until, of course, the shower curtain – who you thought was your friend, who you thought you could trust – gives in to its strange, powerful attraction to running water and billows in towards you. On a good day, it’s a minor annoyance. On a bad day, it’s an unspeakable horror and the curtain actually, like, touches you. And it’s cold. And maybe even a little slimy.

Why does the curtain do this to us? Great minds have been struggling with the problem for years, but until recently all anyone offered were hypotheses. Nobody ever actually tested these explanations and made the results public until a few years ago. That experiment gave us a pretty solid answer, but the theoretical work that came before it is pretty interesting, too. Let’s explore the small handful of different answers that have been suggested over time.

The Bernoulli Principle Hypothesis
We talked about the Bernoulli’s principle the last time I wrote about bathroom science. It states, basically, that an increase in velocity of a fluid (liquid or gas) results in a decrease in pressure around it. With shower curtains, the principle was thought to come into play like this: The water coming out of the shower head causes the air in the shower to start flowing in the same direction that it's traveling, which is parallel to the curtain. The air moving across the inside of the shower curtain causes the air pressure to drop, and the difference in pressure between the two sides of the curtain causes it to move in toward the lower-pressure area. For most of the time that people have been talking about the shower curtain effect scientifically, this has been the leading explanation.

The Buoyancy Hypothesis
Warm air rises up and out of the shower. The air density in the shower is reduced and, like in the Bernoulli hypothesis, the difference in pressure between the shower and outside of the curtain makes the curtain move inward. The big problem with this hypothesis? The curtain still moves in even if you run an ice cold shower.

The Coand? Effect Hypothesis
Jearl Walker, a professor of physics at Cleveland State University who used to write Scientific American’s “Amateur Scientist” column, suggested that the Coand? effect, the tendency of a fluid in motion to adhere to a surface or vice versa, was at work.
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Now, these hypotheses are all well and good. They’re plausible explanations. One was even suggested by a guy who knows a thing or two about physics (and has put his hand in molten lava and poured liquid nitrogen in his mouth to demonstrate its principles). But they don’t mean much without data to back them up.

In 2001, David Schmidt, from the University of Massachusetts, put his own hypothesis to the test and gave us the first evidence-backed explanation to every showerer’s pet peeve.

The Horizontal Vortex Hypothesis
Using a computer model of a shower, Schmidt found that the shower head’s spray creates a horizontal vortex with a low-pressure area center that sucks in the shower curtain. We’ll let Schmidt, who won the 2001 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, explain his study and its results a little more. As he explained it to Scientific American:

To do the calculation, I drafted a model of a typical shower and divided the shower area into 50,000 minuscule cells. The tub, the showerhead, the curtain rod and the room outside of the shower were all included. I ran [the modeling software] for two weeks on my home computer in the evening and on weekends (when my wife wasn't using the computer). The simulation [which ran some 1.5 trillion calculations] revealed 30 seconds of actual shower time.

When the simulation was complete, it showed that the spray drove a vortex. The center of this vortex, much like the center of a cyclone, is a low-pressure region. This low-pressure region is what pulls the shower curtain in… It is a bit like a sideways dust devil. But unlike a dust devil, this vortex doesn't die out because it is driven continuously by the shower.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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