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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Plumbers

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One of the biggest amenities of modern life is also one we normally take for granted. Running water allows us to cook, clean, bathe, and dispose of waste. When it works, no one thinks about it. When it doesn’t, we panic. It’s little wonder that plumbers can command high labor rates—in some areas, in excess of $100 an hour—to make sure things keep flowing smoothly.

To better understand how these pipe whisperers keep civilized society intact, we spoke to several industry professionals. Here are a few things you might not know about the very patient people who are sometimes squeezed in under your sink.

1.THERE’S SOMETHING FAR WORSE THAN TOILET CLOGS.

While sewage lines are bad enough, there’s actually something worse than fecal matter. “Restaurant kitchen sinks,” says Mike, a plumber working in the Cleveland, Ohio area. “Everything gets down in there and solidifies. It tends to be fat-based, and no soap works on it. The stench just sticks to you. It’s far worse than sewage.” A rough sink job, he says, can mean using rubbing alcohol to clean his skin or just throwing out his clothes entirely.

2. THEY WISH YOU’D STOP USING DRAIN CLEANERS.

Over-the-counter chemicals used to break up clogs in drain lines don’t always do an effective job. When a homeowner has poured some down the drain and then calls a plumber to fix the persistent issue, the plumber often sighs. “They are almost always ineffective and are definitely only temporary,” says Tom Parker, a plumber in Maryland. “They can also cause corrosion in the drainage system. And if I have to snake the drain, I can get those chemicals splashed all over me. Please at least warn me ahead of time.”

3. YOU SHOULD STOP TRYING TO FLUSH CELL PHONES DOWN THE TOILET.

According to Mike, a surprising number of people who accidentally drop their cell phone into a public toilet make the unfortunate decision of trying to abandon it by flushing. “Most people are grossed out by it and aren’t going to want to use it again,” he says. “They think it’ll go down.” (It does not go down.)

4. SOME OF THE OTHER THINGS YOU THINK ARE FLUSHABLE AREN’T.

Other popular causes for toilet clogs: feminine hygiene products (which are designed to swell with fluid) and “flushable” wipes, which do not break down as easily as toilet paper. “The flushable wipe business has been good for the drain cleaning business,” Mike says.

5. HIGH-RISES GET POOP FLUSHES.

A hydro-flush is a preventative service provided to apartment complexes to help avoid any potential blockages in sewer drain lines. According to Andreas Samaris, a plumber working in Canada, the job is basically one big engineering enema. “It’s essentially a pressure washer that you shove down a pipe in the bottom of the building that needs to be done once a year, so that the building doesn’t get as many blockages,” he says. Once the line has been uncapped, it tends to seep brown or black liquid. “It's honestly the most disgusting thing, but I am not too grossed-out about it.”

6. YES, THEY GET HIT ON...

Tradesmen have a short-hand for flirtatious customer encounters: “near-sex experiences,” or NSEs. “It’s not like I flirt with customers, like, ‘Hi, help me take off this shirt,’” says Mike, who is happily married. “But female customers can flirt. I’ve been hit on.”

7. … UNLESS THEY’RE COVERED IN POOP. WHICH HAPPENS A LOT.

Cleaning out drains means getting rid of waste clogs backing up the line, and they have to go somewhere. If a plumber is stationed at a point of poop access, odds are he’s going to get hit. On one of Mike’s first jobs, he was accompanying his supervisor while they were snaking a second-story drain above them. “He wasn’t paying attention, but he heard it,” Mike recalls. “30 to 40 gallons of raw sewage. His face was six inches from the pipe.”

8. WHICH IS WHY SOME OF THEM MIGHT NOT CALL YOU BACK.

James, a plumber in the Pacific Northwest, says that some plumbers may suddenly discover they’re all booked up if your call involves a poop-flooded basement. “I actively avoid jobs where I know it's going to be an issue,” he says. “It's too disgusting to seek it out, and I don't like to charge more for jobs that are unpleasant, so I try to avoid them if I'm already busy enough. I can refer you to seven other great plumbers in the area, though.”  

9. THEY CAN GET EXTREMELY SICK.

James might have the right idea. Close encounters with human waste puts plumbers at risk for a variety of illnesses, including E. coli, stomach parasites, and hepatitis. “A lot of plumbers wind up dealing with hepatitis A at some point,” Mike says. “You’re getting stuff splashed in your face and mouth. Every single plumber I know has dealt with something rough.”

10. YOU MAY NEED TO GIVE THEM A HAND.

Most of the plumbers we spoke to had nice things to say about their customers, with one exception: Not everyone bothers to give them an unobstructed path to the offending plumbing. “I need access,” Tom says. “Bathroom sink clogged or faucet broken? Please remove all the stuff piled under the sink. Water heater need replacing? Please be sure it is clear and I have a clear path to remove the old one and bring in the new one.” If not, you've effectively hired a $100-an-hour moving service.

11. THEY HAVE A TIP TO CLEAN GARBAGE DISPOSALS.

Ice cubes. But it’s not to sharpen the blades, because disposals don’t really have blades. “They are blunt pieces of curved metal that whip around and pulverize everything,” Tom says. “Then the pulverized stuff is forced through a perforated plate. Over time, food matter can build up on the blades and the holes. A couple ice cubes can knock some of that debris loose to clean things up in there a bit. Adding some lemon peels can help with odors, too.”

12. NEW TOOLS ARE NOT NECESSARILY A BAD SIGN.

Conventional wisdom says that a plumber with brand-new tools should be eyed suspiciously, as any experienced laborer will have a bag full of rusty, poop-encrusted wrenches. Not so, according to Tom. “There are many reasons why a plumber may have new, clean tools,” he says. “Maybe he's just starting a new company, maybe he had his stolen, maybe he just replaced a few broken ones and those are the only ones he needed to bring into the building.” A better sign of experience, James says, is how well his tools are organized.

13. IF YOU NEED ONE, WAIT UNTIL TUESDAY. (OR THE NEW YEAR.)

People try to avoid calling plumbers on weekends so they don’t have to pay them for overtime. That means a lot of business on Mondays. “Generally speaking, after New Year’s Day it will be slow, too,” Andreas says. “People tend to not want to fix things due to lack of money from Christmas."

14. THEY KNOW FOOD.

And not just after it’s been digested. “When you have the opportunity to go out to lunch, go with a service plumber,” Mike says. “He’ll tell you where something’s good locally.” You might notice that he doesn’t eat the corner of his sandwich, where his fingers have touched it. According to James, they don’t bite their fingernails either. They know better.

All images courtesy of iStock.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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