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6 Predecessors to the Toilet

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Humanity has always wanted a nice way to dispose of their body waste. Well, some people in humanity. Most people threw it out the window, put it in their water supply, or left it in an open pit on the edge of the village. But every now and then a more convenient, less disgusting option would present itself. Here are six ways people have tried to make the troublesome business of doing your business more pleasant.

1. The Great Drain

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Not all ancient Romans used the public toilets available to them. If you were at home, it was still more convenient to go in a pot and throw it out the window. This practice was less offensive in Rome than in most places, because their streets were angled so that waste naturally fell into the gutters, which fed into The Great Drain—a constantly flowing stream that washed away from the city. Public toilets were communal and open to all genders and ages. Sponges sat in the ditch in front of the sitter in a constantly running steam of water, which allowed Romans to stab one with a stick, clean their bits, and toss the sponge into The Great Drain.

2. The Garderobe

Note the erosion on the wall directly below the garderobe. Photos courtesy of Flickr (left: gowersaint; right: Ronald Hackston)

It can really add a whole new perspective to Disney movies when you consider that most of the princesses would have relieved themselves in a stone hole that sluiced down the side of their castle to the ground (or moat) below. “Garderobe” can also mean closet, and often the two functions were used at the same time. It was believed that the odor and ammonia would kill off fleas and moths, which were apparently more miserable than smelling like your toilet chute.

3. The Close Stool

Photo courtesy of Stuart Interiors

Ever wonder why the doctors call it a “stool” sample? Well, you’re looking at it. The close stool (also called “the night stool”) held a chamber pot within a pleasant, often ornate seat. Close stools had the hygienic option of being able to close the lid, which would remove the evidence of your vile humanity until a servant came to collect it.

4. The Water Closet

Image courtesy of Victorian Passage

The Water Closet was the first widely used form of flush toilet. It was delightfully civilized and offered the furthest distance man had ever been able to put between himself and his sewage. Water fell from the cistern by force of gravity, and the carefully designed curves of the pipes in the basin helped prevent blockage and kept sewer gas from rising back up through the pipe. Where the pipes led to … that took some years to iron out. Water Closets predated widespread sewage treatment, and often the pipes led to water supplies. They didn’t call it a bathroom in those days, because your bath wasn’t in that room. Rather, many of the toilets were placed in remodeled closets, with just enough room to do what was necessary.

5. The Earth Closet

Photo courtesy of Mark Henderson via The Outhouse of America Tour

The man who invented the Earth Closet, Henry Moule, thought Water Closets and outhouses were “an unnatural abomination.” He became so disgusted with his own outhouse that he filled it in and demanded his family use buckets instead, the contents of which he buried. When he realized that in a few months’ time human waste becomes indistinguishable from the dirt around it, he created the Earth Toilet. After use, a cistern would drop a pile of ash or soil into the pot inside the seat, covering sight and smell until it was taken and buried. He boasted that the excrement/dirt mix that resulted could be dried and reused 25 times without ever becoming offensive to eye or nose. His invention was a reasonable, sanitary solution for the era. But eventually, the cleansing "out of sight–out of mind" swoosh of the water closet won out.

6. The Pig Toilet

Fair warning: This is going to be very unpleasant and might affect your ability to enjoy sweet and sour pork. Pig toilets were once widely used in China, and can still be found in certain provinces. The basic idea is that a person defecates into a pig trough, where pigs, who can and will eat anything … yeah. It was actually considered a very sanitary solution, far superior to an open cesspit or the hassle of proper waste disposal. Not to mention, as far as environmental concerns go, this makes recycling cardboard look decidedly unambitious.

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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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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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