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Australian Toilets Don't Flush Backwards Because of the Coriolis Effect

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Toilet image via Shutterstock

File under "News to Me": you know that old story about how northern hemisphere toilets flush counter-clockwise, and southern hemisphere toilets (and buckets, drains, and such) flush clockwise, due to the Coriolis effect? It's bogus! Today I learned that while the Coriolis effect is significant for hurricanes, it's not strong enough to make toilets flush in different directions at different points on the Earth. The real cause of "backwards"-flushing toilets is just that the water jets point in the opposite direction. Mind blown. (Mind blown even more because this was the inciting event on a Simpsons episode, and everybody knows cartoons are never wrong.)

Let's Talk Science

So there is indeed a Coriolis effect, and we see it on grand scales -- hurricanes in different hemispheres tend to rotate in different directions, because the underlying Earth is spinning, and the effect is exaggerated as you move farther from the equator. This Penn State science page by Professor of Meteorology Alistair B. Fraser explains:

On the scale of hurricanes and large mid-latitude storms, the Coriolis force causes the air to rotate around a low pressure center in a cyclonic direction. Indeed, the term cyclonic not only means that the fluid (air or water) rotates in the same direction as the underlying Earth, but also that the rotation of the fluid is due to the rotation of the Earth. Thus, the air flowing around a hurricane spins counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and clockwise in the southern hemisphere (as does the Earth, itself). In both hemispheres, this rotation is deemed cyclonic. If the Earth did not rotate, the air would flow directly in towards the low pressure center, but on a spinning Earth, the Coriolis force causes that air to be deviated with the result that it travels around the low pressure center.

So it works on large scales. But on small scales (like in your toilet, sink, or bucket), the rotation of the Earth itself (at a decidedly pokey rate of one rotation per day) is much weaker than other forces -- like the force of water jets in a toilet, or the force of water hitting slopes in a sink.

The Pole to Pole Problem

In tracking down where this drain-direction myth originated and how it got so firmly lodged in the heads of people like me, many sources discuss the (otherwise awesome) Michael Palin documentary Pole to Pole, in which Palin visits the equator in Kenya and observes a tourist trap in which a man "demonstrates" (via fakery) the draining of water in different ways on the equator itself, and just north and south of it. Palin doesn't point out that it's fake. I remember seeing this documentary when it came out, and it may be where I picked up the notion -- it seems like such an appealing demonstration of science, such an "ah-ha!" moment that of course the rotation of the Earth should cause such changes in draining water! We're all tiny ants on a huge spinning globe! What wonders! Sadly, it's BS. Again, Fraser has a good write-up; here's a snippet:

[T]he faker must be forcing the rotation by other means, and by a sufficiently unobtrusive way that the busloads of tourists do not spot the means. Indeed, a colleague of mine, who witnessed the performance first hand and knew it was a cheat, was not able to spot how the fraud was perpetrated. (It is an interesting sidelight that when back on the bus, he informed his fellow tourists that they had just witnessed fakery --- the Earth did not cause the rotation they had just seen --- there was widespread disappointment. The tourists preferred the fantasy to the reality.)

Fraser proceeds to explain how you can fake it yourself.

The Plot Thickens

According to various sources, it is possible to demonstrate a Coriolis effect on water on a small scale, but only under extremely controlled circumstances -- involving predictably shaped water vessels, long periods of time of waiting for water to become as still as possible, carefully removing a stopper in the bottom of the vessel without adding spin, and other such crazy stuff. But in your typical toilet or sink, the Coriolis force is so small as to be undetectable relative to other forces. Even holding a bowl of water and turning around introduces sufficient spin to get things going in one direction or another.

A Fun Experiment

Go to your bathroom now and observe water going down the drain -- any drain you want. Depending on the efficiency of your plumbing, you may need to stop up the drain, fill the basin, then unplug it and wait. (It might also help to have something lightweight floating in there, to mark any motion -- a few bits of tissue may work, or a matchstick or two.) Observe whether the draining water forms a clockwise or counter-clockwise spiral. Go ahead, I'll wait. Now check all the other drains you can find. Do they match? In my (admittedly unscientific) testing just now, one sink drained clockwise, the other counter-clockwise, one didn't have an easily observable spin (it's small), and the toilet was also counter-clockwise, clearly due to the position of its water jets. Well. There you go: science in action.

(Via Steven Frank, via Snopes. Note that we covered this topic back in 2007 as well.)

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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