Toilet Talk

I have some good news and some bad news. Bad news first.

Like me, you probably missed World Toilet Day, which was November 19, 2010. This was also the day that an outfit called FINISH launched a contest for creating new and improved sanitation systems for rural India. And now you’ve missed the contest deadline, too, which was February 28.

Now here’s the good news.

My friend Howard is now helping FINISH (which stands for Financial Inclusion Improves Sanitation and Health, and is NOT intended to indicate something you might yell outside the bathroom door when someone is taking way too long), and he tells me they’re almost 100% sure to run the contest again next year.

So heads up, engineers. You have a whole year to design a sanitation system for rural India! You could win 10,000 euros! By ‘new and improved’ I’m assuming they mean over existing sanitation systems in rural India, which I also assume to be fairly primitive.

We’re not talking Japanese-style toilets that play Beethoven, give you a facial, read your horoscope and do your taxes for you while you sit. No, your invention needs to be simple, streamlined and inexpensive. Functional.

And what better place to come up with a sanitation system design than in the loo? Think about it — if you spend those ten minutes a day (or more?) pondering the possibilities, in a year you are bound to come up with a breakthrough. (In toilet design. Don’t be crude.)

Reading about the contest reminds me of a particularly hilarious episode of Big Bang Theory. For those of you who don’t watch US television, it’s a sitcom about four Caltech nerds. If you like science or know any scientists and you have a functional sense of humor, it’s definitely worth watching.

On this particular episode, Wolowitz, the Jewish aerospace engineer who “only” has a Master’s degree (the other three have PhDs in physics) is brimming (okay, sorry) with pride because his innovative zero-gravity toilet design has been installed on the International Space Station. Partway through the episode he realizes the toilet has a “teeny tiny” design flaw that will nonetheless be catastrophic for those on board the ISS. He enlists his friends to help him engineer a solution using only the materials that would be available to the astronauts. At one point they think they’ve found a solution, and they test it using some meatloaf, which the device ejects at high velocity. It sticks to the ceiling, and later drops onto the coffee table around which they’re having dinner with across-the-hall heartthrob Penny. Then they think they’ve found another solution, but it involves the plastic gadget designed to keep pizza from sticking to the pizza box. Eventually they do come up with something that works. The episode ends with the astronauts informing Houston that they have “a little situation” and will go for a space walk.

Unlike Wolowitz, you don’t have to deal with zero gravity conditions, and Domino’s can probably be convinced to deliver to rural India, if it’s profitable enough. The range of possibilities is boundless. Put that morning constitutional to good use, help millions of rural Indians and win money and fame in the process! It’s win-win. If that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is.

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