Toilet Technology

Technology has moved forward by leaps and bounds in many areas, but there’s one device that really hasn’t changed all that much:  the toilet.  And in many areas of the world, even the standard toilet found in American bathrooms in the year 1900 would be a huge leap forward.

Proper waste disposal is crucial if the human hopes to deal with disease and health areas in underdeveloped areas that don’t have toilets and sewage systems and water treatment plants and other waste-related infrastructure that Americans take for granted.  So I applaud Bill Gates for taking the lead in trying to spur new approaches to toilet design and sludge disposal, with the goal being to break waste down into its constituent entities, conserve water in areas where potable water is scarce, and deal with the bacteria, microbes, and other disease carrying entities that are associated with human waste.  You can read about some of the new approaches, and the efforts made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in this area, here.

The linked article suggests that advancing toilet technology could save the world more than $200 billion every year.  I’ll let others do the math, but I think the key is to use technology for more than just room-sweeping robots and better selfie quality.  I’m glad to see that people are trying to tackle a basic problem that could produce immeasurable benefits in the quality of life of people who live in underdeveloped parts of the world.

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All Beers Are Not Created Equal

Deutsche Bank has performed a useful service for travelers who enjoy a fermented beverage now and then:  its latest Mapping The World’s Prices report includes a pint of beer as one of the cost items being surveyed.  As a result, beer fans (like me) can get a sense of the comparative cost of a glass of suds in 50 different cities around the world.

save-pubs-hed-page-2018According to this year’s report, the most expensive pint is in Dubai, in the Arab Emirates, where the average cost of a cold one is $12.  Oslo, Norway is the only other city to exceed the $10 barrier for a brewski.  The most expensive beers in the U.S. are found in New York City and San Francisco — no surprise there — where you’ll pay an average of $7.70 and $7.40, respectively, and Boston isn’t far behind at $6.70.  The cheapest pint can be found in Manila, in the Philippines, where beer afficionados can slake their thirst for only $1.50.  Columbus isn’t one of the 50 cities on the list, but in my experience the beer costs here are closer to the Manila end of the spectrum — which is one of the many nice things about living in Ohio’s capital city.

But while the Deutsche Bank report is useful for travelers who might want to factor in beer costs to their trip planning, it really doesn’t tell the whole story.  A beer isn’t always just a beer.  To me, at least, whether we’re talking about a lager, an ale, one of those infernal bitter IPAs that seem to dominate beer menus these days, or something else, would make a real difference.  Even $1.50 for an IPA would be more than I would pay.

And the setting is important, too.  I’m guessing that someone coming into a pub from the fiery heat of Dubai might consider $12 for a cold one to be a bargain.  And speaking as someone who particularly enjoys the dark, warm, woody ambiance of a real British pub like the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, I’ll gladly pay $7.20 that is the average cost of a beer in London.

The New Space Race

The old Space Race, between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, is on full display in the excellent film First Man.  The new space race doesn’t have the same ideological, future of civilization elements as the old one, and is a lot more multi-faceted, but it’s just as important to our long-term future in space.

And right now, the United States is winning.

wvws_falcon-heavy-demo-2310The new space race focuses on commercial spaceflight and launching vehicles into space.  For years, the United States was playing catch-up to the Europeans, and trailing badly.  The Euros were launching the majority of satellites and vehicles into space, using their Ariane rocket, while the United States was retiring its primary launch vehicle, the space shuttle, without having any back-up in place.  In 2011, when the shuttle was retired, there were no commercial satellite launches from any American spaceports, and for the next few years the launch industry was dominated by the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, launching from government-backed providers.

But now the tide has turned.  America led the way in commercial launches in 2016 and 2017, and 2018 is shaping up to be even better.  The trend is so pronounced that European advocates are afraid that they are falling behind and won’t catch up.

The reason for trend is that the United States has made room for commercial entities, like SpaceX, to enter the launching game.  While the United States government still is a major player in space, SpaceX’s focus on innovation and cost control, through use of reusable rockets, have made it extremely competitive in bidding for launch jobs, whether it is commercial satellites being placed into orbit or missions to the international space station.  And new entrants to the competition, like Blue Origin, are set to participate — which is likely to make the American lead even more pronounced.  The article linked above notes:  “the uniquely American approach of government support and investment in private space is paying dividends, creating an industry that could swallow the comparatively moribund European effort.”

It’s nice to know that American capitalism, and good old-fashioned competition, can still produce innovation and leadership — and now in space.

A Bridge Too Far

Over in the Far East, they’ve just opened the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge.  Connecting Hong Kong, Macau, and the Chinese city of Zhuhai, the bridge cost $20 billion and is 34 miles long.  It took nine years to build, involved the creation of artificial islands, dips into a tunnel under a busy harbor area, and is supposed to be designed to withstand earthquakes, typhoons, and collisions with oversized tankers.

551478a8-d1f0-11e8-81a4-d952f5356e85_1320x770_022145It’s an impressive engineering feat, no doubt — but when I read about the bridge I mostly felt relief that I wouldn’t have to drive across it.

I’m not a big fan of driving on those lengthy bridges that span bays or harbor or rivers.  The towering height over the water, the slightly claustrophobic feeling of being penned in as you cross, and the concern that you are putting yourself totally in the hands of approaching drivers who might be hedging toward the middle — or, even worse, trying to take a photo with their phone — combine to make a long bridge crossing an uncomfortable experience for me.  I grip the steering wheel a little tighter as I cross.

I’m not alone in this.  Years ago, when Kish and I once traversed the colossal Chesapeake Bay bridge, we learned that some people simply could not bring themselves to drive across it — so many people, in fact, that there were drivers stationed at each end to help people make the trip.  Perhaps that’s at least part of the reason why most drivers won’t even have the opportunity to drive on the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai span in their own cars; they’re required to park in Hong Kong and take a shuttle bus or a special hire car to cross the bridge.

If I ever have to cross this new, world’s longest sea-spanning bridge, I’d be happy to have somebody else do the driving.  A 34-mile-long bridge might be a bridge too far for me.

The King’s Privy

People often have romantic notions about the kings and queens of yore.  We think about turreted castles and fluttering pennants and knights in shining armor, but not about the uglier, nitty gritty details of what life was really like in those days — before modern dentistry, and the invention of air conditioning, and countless other developments that contribute every day to making our lives much better than they have ever been before.

mann-wrathIndoor plumbing obviously is one of those developments.  Which raises the question:  how did kings deal with that essential aspect of the human existence?

Historians note that England’s King Henry VIII — he of the six wives — actually had a courtier called the Groom of the Stool to take care of that element of the King’s daily routine.   The GOTS apparently was a high-ranking (if not coveted) position that involves taking careful notes about the monarch’s bowel movements and maintaining the “Stool Room.”  The Stool Room was a private privy where the King used a padded chair “covered in sheepskin, black velvet, and ribbons” positioned above a pewter chamber pot to take care of business.

Other members of the Court had their own private rooms with their own chamber pots, but the masses weren’t quite so lucky.  The article linked above indicates that servants working at the King’s palace tended to answer the call of nature in whatever happened to be nearby.  Fireplaces and the stone walls of the castle were popular targets, giving the castle a distinct aroma by the end of a long day.  And visitors and the staff also used a huge, open-air facility called the “Great House of Easement” that had 28 seats and no stalls or interior walls.  The facility and its tank were cleaned by a group of boys called the Gong Scourers who were appointed by the King.

Still entertaining romantic notions those days of olde?

Ancient Headgear

If you needed further evidence that the world is a weird place, here’s something:  you can actually buy a hat made with authentic woolly mammoth hair for only $10,000.

World's only woolly mammoth hatThe hat has been put up for sale by Vladimir Ammosov, a man from Yakutsk.  His relative had gone to the “woolly mammoth graveyard” at a village in Yakutia and filled a plastic bag with woolly mammoth hair.  (In this part of Siberia, hunting for remains of the gigantic, shaggy, elephant-like creatures who thrived during the Ice Age is a popular local pastime — hey, what else are you going to do in Siberia? — and there is a lively trade in mammoth remains, especially tusks.)  The relative needed cash, and sold the bag of hair to Ammosov, who then had to decide what to do with it.

First, Ammosov got the expert at the local mammoth museum to confirm that the bag did in fact contain mammoth hair, then he decided to have the woolly mammoth hair crocheted into a head-hugging hat in the traditional Yakutian style.  Typically, the hats are made of horse hair, but the ancient mammoth hair served just as well.

It’s not exactly a flattering piece of headgear, and because mammoth hair was coarse — after all, it served as protection against the cold during an Ice Age — the hat is described as “prickly” to wear.  It was put up for sale in August, but I’ve found no follow-up stories to indicate whether it has actually been sold.  Could it be that there is no one out there willing to pay $10,000 for an ugly, uncomfortable hat woven from the hair of extinct, long-dead creatures?  Maybe the world isn’t quite as crazy as we think.

Measles — And Vaccinations

There’s been a serious measles outbreak in Europe this year.  In the first half of 2018, there have been more than 41,000 reported cases of measles in Europe, and at least 37 deaths.  The 41,000 cases during the first half of 2018 is almost double the number of measles cases reported during the entire year of 2017 and is almost eight times higher than the reported measles figures for Europe in 2016.

pri_65784434There is a simple apparent cause for the European measles outbreak:  a drop in immunization rates.  Routine vaccinations of young children with the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine — which is shown to be 97% effective in preventing measles — are falling in countries like Italy, Romania, and the Ukraine.  It’s not clear whether parents are simply not as attentive as they once were, or whether they think measles has been wiped out and vaccination isn’t necessary in the modern world, or they’ve fallen prey to scientifically dubious arguments that MMR vaccination leads to conditions like autism.

The decline in vaccinations in the general public is the key to measles outbreaks, because measles is one of the most virulent, communicable diseases around.  It’s spread by droplets in the coughs and sneezes of an infected person, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a person with measles can infect 90 percent of the non-immune people who come within close contact.  And even though measles seems like a simple childhood disease, it can have serious complications, like pneumonia and encephalitis, in some cases.

According to the CDC, there are no measles outbreaks in the U.S.; as of August, there had been only 124 cases of measles in 22 states in 2018, and none in Ohio.   It’s a marked contrast to the figures reported in Europe.  The outbreak in Europe, however, shows that parents and doctors need to keep their guards up and ensure that kids get vaccinated.  And it shows something more:  in this interconnected world, we’ve got to be able to depend on each other to follow the health care basics.  If people stop getting the routine, proven vaccinations, measles may end up being the least of our concerns.