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Gates Foundation spent $200M funding toilet research (bloomberg.com)
457 points by aportnoy 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 273 comments

This reminds me of software developer who favor deep, technical, architectural work instead of attractive, "sounds cool on paper" sort of work.

To an outsider, the animations look cool but the engine that drives the animation is cooler to software engineers.

Point being, this is not something a normal philanthropist would imagine being cool and awesome. This takes someone who actually cares about shit (in this case literally) to invest time and money into it.

One thing I always thought fascinating about Gates was his candid relationship with feces.

mindfuplay’s comment reminded me of the famous glass of shit water Gates drank from his Omniprocessor project [0].

But within that 2015 article, Gates mentions a long term plan for seweage and shit[1]:

>If we can develop safe, affordable ways to get rid of human waste, we can prevent many of those deaths and help more children grow up healthy.

>Western toilets aren’t the answer, because they require a massive infrastructure of sewer lines and treatment plants that just isn’t feasible in many poor countries.

He also mentions he wrote about toilets before in a 2012 article titled “Reflections on the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge.”[2]

Digging deeper into that article brought me to a PDF from the Gates Foundation outlining grants from their 2011 program: “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” [3]






> "One thing I always thought fascinating about Gates was his candid relationship with feces."

I'd say his relationship is with humans. People are his ends. Feces (i.e., the lack there of) are his means. It's a stunning example of hope (not being lost).

What's most impressive to me is a $200 million investment over 7 years, has the potential to "return" $200 billion __annually__. The lottery seems to break $200M a couple+ times per yer.

Editorial: It's amazing what you can accomplish for the price of a handful of F35 fighter jets.

> Editorial: It's amazing what you can accomplish for the price of a handful of F35 fighter jets.

sadly our investments don't align in the high return ways.

Just _one_ F35, depending on the variant.

Thx. I looked and couldn't find it mentioned per jet.

That’s because there aren’t any honest prices for a single jet. The R&D cost is so high that how one amortizes that can make 2 orders of magnitude difference in unit cost.

I assumed just what they sold them for per unit to other countries, but maybe they pitched in for R&D? Seems to range from 90-130. Maybe you get 2 if you buy the non navy version.

> One thing I always thought fascinating about Gates was his candid relationship with feces.

You pretty much can't be in public health, especially not developing world public health, without developing a preoccupation with poo.

A true engineer follows problems to solutions. Gates is up front about this.

What kills the most people? Of those things, which can be realistically improved?

Western toilets seem to work reasonably well with septic tanks in rural areas. Those don't involve sewer lines or treatment plants.

Where do you think the poop goes when it gets pumped out?

In the sailing community more and more people are using composting toilets: https://farmingmybackyard.com/diy-composting-toilet/

As long as it is disposed of safely (properly composted), the cost here is the composting material.

Most properly sized and installed septic tanks do not ever need to be pumped out. They compost on their own and the excess water seeps out underground.

Actually, a proper septic tank (according to EU regulations) has to be water-tight and be emptied regularly. Many beaches on the Mediterranean loose their health pass occasionally due to nearby overbuilding and improper septic tanks.

That's not a "proper" septic tank. That's just a holding tank. The word 'septic' alludes to the fact that you are promoting putrefaction to decompose the contents.

RVs have holding tanks that must be emptied. Thus, they aren't called "septic tanks".

But I'm sure the term is used loosely.

That's not the case in the US.

At least, it's not the normal case in the U.S. We call that a "holding tank", not a septic tank.

However, if the system isn't maintained it often needs replaced at a large expense. Most homeowners don't know how to inspect and don't bother to hire someone knowledgeable.

Our local township has an ordinance where every residential sewage system (10k residents, not sure how many systems that is) has to be pumped out and inspected by a certified sewage hauler. This way, the homeowner knows about and is required to make simple repairs before the entire system fails.

this was contrary to my city-dweller's understanding, so i did some quick wiki-reading and it seems like the reality is somewhere between you and GP's statement? i.e. they do biodegrade waste via anaerobic bacteria, but non-degradable sludge has to get pumped out every few years.

Your city dweller’s habits compel you to throw fat and oil down the drain. These need very high temperature to compost. But then you are also throwing chlorine and ammonia based cleaning agents, which greatly inhibits organic life.

If you let the fat and oil solidify at room temp and dispose of them in the trash, and if you use regular soap in the recommended amount, and if you septic tank additive once in a while, you will be tearing the problem at the source, and will only need to take care of the tank when it’s time to replace it in 40 years.

This is why you see a jar full of bacon fat and the like in lots of rural homes. They aren't saving it to cook with, they are collecting it to throw out with the trash instead of sludging up the drain and septic system. People are much more careful about what they flush down the drain when they know they will be responsible to fix it if they cause issues.

For the apocalyptic end results of lots of city dwellers flushing non-biodegradables down the drain, Google "fatberg" - only if you have a strong stomach.

It depends on how the tank is setup and the drainage system it has.

Septic tanks are not closed systems they are open and intended to provide an environment that can produce a bio-reactor while maintaining drainage through the soil.

Many good systems don’t need to be drained other than every few decades in fact good systems would outlast the tank and the filtering substrate it’s built on so when the time comes you need to dig out the tank and the gravel and other filtering particulate it used because that is what has degraded.

The problem with septic tanks is that they don’t scale we’ll have one on a large property in the middle no where that 5 people use and it’s a great solution have a bunch of them and worse over use one in particular and you get a polluting mess.

But septic tanks also don’t solve the other problem with western toilets and that is the amount of water they consume which is simply unfeasible for many developing regions.

TLDR; if the septic tank was installed and sized correctly it will outlast you even without pumping it, but it’s not a solution the reason we don’t use them in cities is because they don’t and can’t scale with urban population densities.

Also, some US states are encountering issues with bio contamination in their aquifers and as water issues become more prevalent (perennial droughts in some states shrinking aquifers making them less resilient to contamination; perennial flooding in others moving the water tables closer to septic tanks and making them more prone to contamination), the requirements to isolate septic tanks from local ecologies will only grow (ie, increasingly more counties will require to close them, watertight protect them, require them to be regularly pumped moving forward, and/or replace them with a connection to nearby sewage systems).

Yes the ground water level, soil permutability, distance to water sources etc. has a lot of implications on what sceptic system you can implement and I would bet that many tanks are put in without much regulation or oversight.

Other areas like those in which ground temperatures drop below freezing for long period of time might also require tight tanks and constant pumping since the cold may stop the reaction in the tank so it would surprise me if tanks in places like say N. Dakota would be pumped year before winter to prevent them from freezing shut and overflowing.

>every few years

Every few decades for a properly sized and properly functioning system.

Septic tank owner here. I own a single family home, maybe larger setups are different. The recommendation from the installer is that it is pumped and inspected every 3-4 years.

> The recommendation from the installer is that it is pumped and inspected every 3-4 years.

That sounds about right if the goal is to keep a system that's not properly functioning (not enough microbes to break down solids) from filling up to the point of causing problems. You won't go wrong if you follow that advice but depending on what goes into your septic (do you have a garbage disposal, do you do laundry with bleach, number of people in household, etc) you may be able to go an order of magnitude longer. Recommending a system be pumped every 3-4yr is like a 3k oil change, it's excessive in the overwhelming majority of use cases but it will make more money for whoever does the work and not cause a system to fail in a way that comes back to bite whoever installed it.

The manual for the original Nintendo Entertainment System said "Do not operate continuously for more than 15 minutes."

Sometimes legal departments force them to include those recommendations in order to err on the side of "absurdly overcautious." And sometimes the recommendations are merely prudent! I'm not saying you can wait longer, just that installers may have a motivation to exaggerate.

But unlike an NES system, if your septic tank develops a problem you now have liquid and solid waste flooding your yard and home, and your toilets, sinks, and showers are useless until it's fixed.

I feel like the failure mode for electronics is "randomly catches on fire" which can be just as devastating, if not moreso. Nobody has ever died because their toilet backed up. Their house burning down in the middle of the night is a different story.

People die from diseases caused by sewage, but it's usually a downstream issue.

My grandparents had there's installed in 1983. I think it was a somewhere between 700-1000 gallons. The toilets finally stopped flushing properly in 2010. It was because the tank was completely full of sludge. They got it pumped, and I guess it'll go another 20+ years now...

Where does all the solid waste go? Unless you mean they are big enough where they'd need replacement before needing to be pumped.

That makes no sense. What happens to the solid material?

What solid material? Fecal matter, toilet paper, small food particles, etc break down in a septic tank.

I suppose there will be very small amounts of minerals that don't break down but they are insignificant.

The issue comes down to cost. As he mentions in the article, the goal is to get to 5 cents a day. Just a basic calculation, a “standard” septic system costs between $1500-4000 to install, and lasts roughly 25 years. Just doing the math on the low end costs brings you to about $0.16 cents a day, 3X the goal Bill Gates is advocating.

Note: this isn’t even taking into account the cost of the toilet itself or any plumbing needed.

Really all you'd need to do to drastically improve things is get them to simply dig a hole for an outhouse instead of the rampant open defecation seen in India and some parts of Africa. We can solve the more complex and exponentially expensive problems of water treatment later. Digging a deep hole gets rid of rampant cholera and incidental exposure.

Basically you've got to learn to crawl before you can run a 10k.

edit: You can get someone who is completely illiterate and cut off from civilization to understand the concept of digging a hole for the shit to go in. This has the added benefit of not requiring advanced manufacturing technology or materials. they just have to dig a hole and move the outhouse top over to the new hole when the old one gets full. This makes them self reliant.

Digging a hole is more challenging than you think.

It has to be deep enough, and far enough away from a home, road, water source, food supply, etc. Not all communities have a lot of extra land, so you're talking one or two communal toilets, which need to be large to support a large population, and someone has to maintain them.

If you have the land, you have to have money to construct them, as well as labor. Many households can't afford the $1 (that's one US dollar) construction cost, or the household simply can't perform the labor. In some cases, villages will come together to help fund and construct pit latrines, but these are the exception. Most just put up with the shame and disease of open defecation.

Once you do have them, you have cultural issues like India's manual scavenging problem (http://www.thealternative.in/society/manual-scavenging-thoug...) not to mention you literally have to go out and inform millions of tiny remote villages about why and how to change. It's very hard to get people to change.

Assuming outreach of one week per village, for the 600K censused villages in India, that's 11,506 years to just inform and convince them all to build pit latrines. Even 50 outreach teams would take 250 years. With 500 teams you can cut it down to 23 years.

>It has to be deep enough, and far enough away from a home, road, water source, food supply, etc. Not all communities have a lot of extra land, so you're talking one or two communal toilets, which need to be large to support a large population, and someone has to maintain them.

Literally any deep hole practically anywhere is a damn sight better than open defecation straight into the river, on the bank, or all over the streets. And it doesn't take an act of congress to fund it and change building codes, a civil engineer, excavator, and team of union laborers to get this stuff done like it does in the west. You just need someone who is personally motivated and determined and a shovel ideally. like this guy:


All you need is one person who knows that digging a hole would keep his kid from getting sick and dying and you'd have more trouble trying to stop him from digging that hole for an outhouse.

When that clicks for them. That their kid or wife or husband wouldn't have died if they bothered to dig an outhouse, they will be doing the work and telling everyone they know and also nagging people till their ears fell off when they catch someone shitting in the street.

And with viral growth, 10 years? Once 'everybody is doing it' it may not take as much time. How long did it take for cell phones to reach the most remote villages?

Doesn’t really work for China though. Plenty of public toilets around, and people (mostly children) will still take a shit in the street.

Hell, I was in Chongqing a couple months ago and saw a teenager literally unzip, in full view of everyone, and pea on (on, not into) a recycling bin. Next to a god damn public toilet.

In the middle of a shopping center.

Near a police officer.

A lot of people just don’t care.

If you gotta go, I guess?

I've seen people poop on the train platform in NJ. Really crazy, but Newark does not open the bathrooms until 7-8AM. So when you're waiting for the 3AM train to DC... what you gonna do?

Hold it.

Seriously. I can barely hold a piss with age.

We are talking about someone defecating on a train station platform.

I've a good 'decent' friend, who had to take a shit on the station platform. Because there was no other option available at the time. Some people can not hold their bowels. I'm sure he'd have surrendered to the station toilets if they were open. UK trains and stations frequently have shut or out of order toilets. I've foolishly hung on, thinking the train will be an option, only to discover it's a no can do. I'll go alfresco every time given the opportunity these days.

Oh, they're just like San Franciscans.

Except San Francisco has like zero public toilets.

Still gross, but, does human urination spread any diseases?

Taking a shit in the street is perhaps not such a problem if you clean it up afterwards? Culture is hard to change, but perhaps it can be accommodated?

"really all they need to figure out first is to talk to each other before we build mobile cell towers for them"

innovations drive change drive more innovation. I recommend Hans Rosling's talks. There is no such thing as the "Third World" anymore, they're all on various development trajectories. Don't think e.g. Somalia is typical for Africa.

And what I'm saying is a outhouse /is/ a huge innovation to many places in Western Africa and India. It's largely a cultural problem like rampant littering or pollution. One guy digging an outhouse and shitting in it won't make any more difference than a single person recycling. But if enough people do it they will see a huge improvement in public health and infant mortality.

I'd argue that going from shitting in the woods to a well engineered and cheap toilet is a much more attractive step for most people than having them dig outhouses. It's like with the washing mashines - once electrification is there it's one of the first purchases since it's such a quality of life improvement, and this has happened for a majority of the world's population.

I just watched a segment on this (VICE, Vox, other?). In some places, the cultural taboo is cleaning the pit. So in parts of India, with a history of castes, the pits are made impracticably large, to that it never (rarely) needs to be emptied.

Well spotted.

The thing is, you don't need to empty it really. You can just fill in the rest with dirt and dig a new pit 10 meters away.

Septic system lasts for 40 years. But installing a new septic is expensive. $4000 is in the low end

> the goal is to get to 5 cents a day

Anyone know which country is this considering?

The silly thing is, that in it's very basic form, if you divide liquid and solid wastes at the point of exit, solid waste composts easily and readily, with some carbon additives and air. It is very low tech. Not so good in flood prone areas (without additional acre), and one has to be environmentally aware to say the least. But education is a winner here. I'm tied into a shitty contract with a plant owner that is operating illegally. And I've looked at alternatives, but the simplest really is just a bucket that is carried out to the garden. Posh compost toilets are just buckets in chambers that are well ventilated. If you have the space, you can incorporate the chambers into the house and preferably have some ability to rotate. Otherwise it's a case of emptying in a rodent proof heap. You can always compost twice. At least you can then use the waste. Rather than having to pump out sludge that may contain other household contaminants.

They do when they're kept up and in good condition. When there is abundant fresh water.

But when they're not kept up. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/05/hookworm-low...

A surgeon who was a missionary in nepal said he'd have had far gteater impact on health by digging ditches, because of open sewers. He didn't, because it was more important to him to be a surgeon.

Seems Bill Gates is trying to improve the whole system, not just some technical aspect. Which also differentiated MS from most technical companies.

> because they require a massive infrastructure of sewer lines and treatment plants

How do you think economies grow? Job creation at this scale has to be funded out of tax receipts and bonds. The problem is managing the corruption (note: one must assume there are corrupt actors. The trick is managing them).

"Job creation" by itself isn't a very noble goal. Creating hamster wheels for humans to run on is comically cruel and pointless.

Have you ever given someone a job? My experience has been people crave purpose. Sometimes more than life itself.

Fundamentally I agree with this, it's very inefficient and wasteful of resources, although I sometimes wonder whether it's the only practical way to provide welfare in places where politics / prevalent ideology oppose direct social policies.

It can also be argued that charities providing all those third world country with basic supplies, like food, clothes or drugs, actually ruin their economies. It's simply impossible for local producers of said goods to compete on price with charity organization that gives those away for free.

If a corporation would try to do that in US, it would be called price dumping and trigger antimonopoly lawsuit against them, but somehow, when it's done to poor African countries we consider it OK, and even expect them to be gratefull for it.

EDIT: I think that China does much better job helping them by making actual investments in their economies, building railroads, factories, etc. You might question their intentions, but you cannot question the results.

Life is a hamster wheel for humans. But, yes, it's a dumb idea.

>> because they require a massive infrastructure of sewer lines and treatment plants

>How do you think economies grow?

sometimes not by taking debt for public infrastructure they have no way of maintaining

If you watch the video properly you will see that he did not drink the water

> * If you watch the video properly you will see that he did not drink the water*

Then what's he doing at 1:52?

Although granted, the Janicki Omniprocessor website says that it doesn't quite produce drinking water quality.

I don't see him gulping the water down. As a matter of fact, the water barely touched his lips.

>>Western toilets aren’t the answer, because they require a massive infrastructure of sewer lines and treatment plants that just isn’t feasible in many poor countries.

Then build it! No magic tricks there.

I think, this is the most infuriating trait I see in all Silicon Valley "sophisticated person" types.

I'm not a civil engineer but I do work with them occasionally. There are numerous challenges with this, probably the hardest is water pressure: if the water pressure cannot be guaranteed then poor plumbing can send waste water back into the water main, which is a really big problem.

I also assume that to ensure water pressure involves electricity - a lot of poorer countries do not have a constant or reliable electricity supply.

Building this sort of infrastructure is a massive engineering task and it can take years to complete a project like this. It requires skilled engineers and labour. During that time, people will die because it's not done yet.

In conclusion, I think Gates and co have made a good investment.

>I also assume that to ensure water pressure involves electricity - a lot of poorer countries do not have a constant or reliable electricity supply.

Today water pressure in the western world is mostly generated by running finely controlled electric pumps constantly, but it wasn't too long ago that water towers were used everywhere to maintain water pressure. The advantage of a water tower is that you can run an inaccurate oversized pump occasionally to fill up the reservoir on top of the tower, and gravity does the rest of the work.

Of course building a tower capable of holding many tons of water is a comparably complex civil engineering task and is costly in materials.

That's completely forgetting a lot of these areas are water stressed now let alone what they are projected to be in the near future

Send them Brazilian soap operas then.

>Of course building a tower capable of holding many tons of water is a comparably complex civil engineering task and is costly in materials.

In most cases it's not. You park a ground level tank on one of the taller hills in town.

>Building this sort of infrastructure is a massive engineering task

>It requires skilled engineers and labour

Exactly, and there are no tricks around that are known to solve that, other than to engage in massive infrastructure projects. A very simple thing.

There are tricks around known to solve this, such as building intermediate solutions like what Gates proposes to do.

When you have a serious issue in production that can be fixed with a global variable in 5 minutes or spending a day correctly planning and implementing a fix that routes the data correctly, what do you pick? I'd hope doing the first thing and replacing it with the second.

It's that sort of decision, only people die if you don't move in time.

Yes, the magic toilet took a possibly a decade to make, and I bet will never ever see real world deployment.

In the same time, most banal sewers and septic tanks take days to build.

It’s pure pragmatism. There aren’t the resources to build and maintain a sewage network everywhere it is required. Having a more self contained, affordable solution is better for many places.

Build what? What trait?

Infrastructure: power stations, grid, water supply, sewage, roads, garbage removal.

Without that, you have no functioning cities, and without that, no modern day economy.

> What trait?

The believes in all kinds of trickery. No will to deal with issues the straight way. Such people spend more time looking for a shortcut, than dealing with an issue at hand.

Look: Mr. Gates spent $200m on a magic toilet that is nowhere to be found. That's enough to build 5 small electric power stations, and 5 small sewage treatment plants in a third world country.

How many people lives were improved with magic toilet, and how much by building more infrastructure.

> Look: Mr. Gates spent $200m on a magic toilet that is nowhere to be found. That's enough to build 5 small electric power stations, and 5 small sewage treatment plants in a third world country.

There was a nice movie about an engineer that was in Thailand (not sure about the country) to build a dam. long story short a civil war start in the country and he is a main target because infrastructure investment from outside to build an infrastructure you cannot maintain only puts you in a death spiral of debt.

Bill Gates is an amazing example of a driven, ambitious (and when called for by his ambition, ruthless) person and how those traits can lead to startlingly different perceptions of him based on what they are applied to.

Bill Gates the businessman was ruthless in his pursuit of dominating the markets he was in, and was largely successful, to many people's dismay.

Bill Gates the philanthropist is doggedly persistent in identifying and working towards fixing some of the major problems human-kind faces, and he's an actual hero to millions (me included, at this point).

The same person, with the same attitude and drive, just applied to a different goal. I think that's amazing.

There are some common threads though. Forcing a monoculture of Windows machines tied to a Microsoft-controlled software ecology that hampered innovation vs. forcing a monoculture of GMO crops tied to a chemical corp-controlled farming ecology that hampers farming innovation.

He is good at solving big problems by forcing everyone to work the same way. Which is good until that becomes a stupid way of working that hurts everyone.

Which is somewhat interesting, because a common criticism of the Gates Foundation I encounter in the field is that they are a little enamored with gadgets and "sexy" targets.

There are also companies designing "smart toilets" to understand the gut microbiome and changes in it for the user, e.g. https://www.ted.com/speakers/jun_wang

And the graphics card that drives the engine is cooler to hardware engineers.

And the mining capabilities of the graphics hardware is cooler to cryptocurrency investors.

Full circle?

As an African, I can't help but think that all this charity to Africa might be contributing to us lagging behind in the world. With charities helping out so much, will the local government ever get their act together and provide these functions of public sanitation like they are supposed to? Or will they keep stealing public health funds in the knowledge that charity will always swoop down to save the day?

Charities work with the premise of preventing suffering, but most developed countries can point to a "great suffering" that made them quickly turn their shit around, akin to an addict hitting rock bottom. I would liken charity in Africa to the enabler who always features in morbidly obese people's lives, constantly bringing the person food out of a misplaced sense of love, where perhaps the truly loving thing to do would be to let the person hit rock bottom and change themselves.

We don't know if these systems will get better without external interference either. Another post on this page talks about fixing systematic corruption within African countries as being more helpful, but that's a hard problem also.

One solution I could think of is a foreign investor investing a lot of money into the campaign of a candidate who isn't corrupt. The caveat of that solution is the perspective that it would be foreign intervention in the political matters of a separate sovereign entity, thus generating discourse among natives.

Another solution is to raise money to raise political awareness, and use that money for programs that get natives to understand the differing positions of candidates (and towards the infrastructure for voting itself).

BUT it's a lot easier to focus on the immediate relief of general ailments such as life threatening diseases, and proper utilities to make the lives of the general public easier. This way natives of poorer countries won't have to worry about things we take for granted in the west, and can spend their time focusing on the systematic issues that caused those time consuming problems in the first place.

My line of thought in a way aligns with Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Before one can begin worrying about psychological needs, one must have their basic needs met.

How much does it really help to have a noncorrupt leader of government when a large part of the bureaucracy below them is corrupt? Rooting out corruption is a terribly difficult problem that takes decades.

I read somewhere that removing corruption is a bottom-up process, not a top-down one. That is, the culture has to change. There has to be a grassroots movement to eliminate corruption. If society as a whole does not care about it, then it matters not whether the people at the top are corrupt or not.

> One solution I could think of is a foreign investor investing a lot of money into the campaign of a candidate who isn't corrupt.

The opposing candidate will win in a landslide when the foreign-funded candidate is painted as an outsider, funded by “our enemies”, whether true or not.

Many politicians the world around would characterize government handouts the same way, government enabling morbid obesity. And yet, is there some fundamental objection you have to educating women or providing mosquito nets? Dying to malaria does not seem a good rock-bottom to let people hit, if we can provide them cheap nets.

There's no serious objection to either end of the giving chain--donations are good, and education and mosquito nets are good. But donations can slow or cease based on a variety of factors, and then problems that seemed solved won't be solved anymore.

An enduring solution really has to be internally self-sustaining. (Nations with good sewer systems pay for the maintenance themselves.) It's not clear how to structure voluntary donations so they lead to a sustainable solution. Good public health is necessary for developing a sustainable solution, but by itself it is not sufficient.

The bigger issue from an economics perspective - how do you properly distribute mosquito nets to ensure people use them?

> most developed countries can point to a "great suffering" that made them quickly turn their shit around, akin to an addict hitting rock bottom.

It's an interesting ethical question on paper, but I bet it's one you wouldn't bother to ask if it were you dying from cholera, "for the greater good". In any case, only the living can hit rock bottom, so I salute the humanitarian effort going into saving lives.

There is something to this. Was it Ethiopia that (at some point) instituted a no-NGOs-on-mondays type policy, after realising that all their ministers seemed to do was have meetings with the many aid organisations? (No link, sorry.) From memory such organisations contributed something like half the government budget, but all with their own concerns & priorities & need for visible success back home.

More generally, I think it's a pattern that governments which have to collect taxes from the masses need their consent, and thus tend to behave better, than governments which do not. Whether the non-tax income is from oil money or foreign aid, it probably has some similar effects.

Your argument is that criminals will stop being criminals if they notice their victims suffering a bit more?

No, his argument is that the victims will eventually revolt and overthrow the criminals and a better country will form.

"Charities work with the premise of preventing suffering, but most developed countries can point to a "great suffering" that made them quickly turn their shit around, akin to an addict hitting rock bottom. I would liken charity in Africa to the enabler who always features in morbidly obese people's lives, constantly bringing the person food out of a misplaced sense of love, where perhaps the truly loving thing to do would be to let the person hit rock bottom and change themselves."

Coming back from rock bottom isn't something I would read into the history of developed countries. And I don't know what rock bottom is, it seems like things can get unacceptably bad, and stay that way. Is famine rock bottom? Genocide? Child armies? The hole is too deep, you don't want to go there.

A cycle of incremental improvement from within seems like a better bet. But some of the critique remains: external support does not build up self-directed incremental improvement.

Where in Africa are things going well? Where have people found and created their own prosperity? Their own stable, peaceful civic structures? I entirely believe these places exist! But I have no idea where, because all the discussion is about what's going wrong, and the focus is on where things are the worst. But the answers aren't there. And I think you are right, charity can feed the dysfunction.

Would you rather keep the horrific death rate for under 5's

You're supposing good faith on the part of charity. Maybe their purpose is to enslave africa while supporting corruption in their home country

I admire Gates a lot, but for him and way too many technophiles the answer is somehow always tech.

Africa does not have a toilet problem. Or a tech problem. Or even a resources problem. They have a lack of intelligent social organization problem; i.e. dysfunctional or non-existent institutions, laws and organizational structures, as well as myriad forms of corruption from top to bottom that make it impossible to create the systems that would otherwise keep them healthy, sanitary, safe, well-fed yada yada.

Maybe he could publicly ask, how every year, the Minister of Finance in Nigeria publishes a note indicating there is somehow billions of dollars missing from the coffers, that didn't make it over from the Ministry of Petro Resources, i.e Oil [1]? Or the like. Tackling the more obvious, glaring wide-open 'in our faces but we ignore anyhow' forms of corruption might be a good start, and would ultimately yield a lot more than functional toilets.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/03/ni...

That's super callous and cynical. "Some African governments are corrupt so don't do anything." Deaths from malaria in Africa fell from 800,000 per year in 2000 to 400,000 per year today because of the introduction of affordable mosquito nets. That fact alone refutes your entire arguement.

My take is not cynical, it's pragmatic, moreover, I didn't imply that Gates shouldn't doing what he is doing.

"Deaths from malaria in Africa fell from 800,000 per year in 2000 to 400,000 per year today because of the introduction of affordable mosquito nets. That fact alone refutes your entire arguement."

This statement only enhances my argument. Africa is a bountiful land of resources and ostensible human capital for labour. They should easily be able to afford (or make their own) mosquito nets.

Consider the vast numbers of unemployed people - and that making 'mosquito nets' doesn't require any skill or frankly machinery. The only ostensible 'import' would be some very inexpensive textiles. We're talking a few pennies per person. And that the 'upside' from the effort would yield dramatic benefits, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of saved lives. How on earth are zillions of people dying from something that literally only a few million dollars in 'external financing' (if they don't have the money, which they do) - and some pragmatic planning - should solve? That there needed to be intervention to solve this problem only highlights how dramatically dysfunctional the situation must be.

And as far as 'some' governments, no, it's pretty much all of them, maybe save Botswana, the shinning example, at least for now. [1]

Also - it's not just 'governments', and it's not just 'corruption' - it's lack of civic function all the way up and down society.

[1] https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_percept...

Nope, it's accurate.

One booming industry is kidnapping [1]. I worked on a technology that would have helped with that problem in one of those African states. We made the sale, delivered our equipment, and prepared to install and activate the first phase. The equipment vanished and the negotiations stalled on the next phase. It seems half the government was interested in preventing kidnappings, while the other half was perpetrating them. Furthermore, the budgeting process involved some kind of internal process where someone gets approval to spend some money, the money is issued, but it gets "taxed" on its way to the vendor until nothing is left. Total loss for us.

1. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mapping-kidnappings-in-...

ps - Our teams visiting in country needed armed escorts, for obvious reasons.

Tackling the more obvious, glaring wide-open 'in our faces but we ignore anyhow' forms of corruption (OP) is not "so don't do anything."

He/we can't even solve the corruption/political issues in our own country, yet you suggest that he solve all of the corruption/political issues in all of the countries with public health issues.

Much more direct to affect change via the private business route. It makes sense his foundation has stayed apolitical.

It's indeed true that the problem is not caused by a lack of technology. Some places became much more sanitary, safe, well-fed on a much lower technological level.

But a more positive take would be that perhaps better tech offers a way to improve people's lives despite other disfunction.

London had pretty amazing communications 150 years ago, letters delivered 4-5 times a day to any of a million people. This machine took an enormous amount of human capital to run — thousands of literate & honest postmen, for a start. Today we can deliver a better outcome with much less input — just a few guys who know how to set up a cellphone base station. This doesn’t fix the dysfunction, but does offer many benefits.

While I agree with you, and have actually thought about this same problem a ton, this seems dangerous to try and change as an individual rather than a fellow government.

Additionally, removing corrupt officials will just create a power vacuum, and oftentimes officials will become corrupt over the course of their term. I forget the political science terminology, but there's this issue where someone will only be able to take over in a dictatorship if they have the backing of many others, who, unsurprisingly, want more out of them than they get from the current official. So the end result is that nearly always, the new official will be more corrupt, particularly in destitute autocracies and oligarchies where the general public's opinions are either irrelevant or uninformed.

So while, yes, the corruption will throw wrenches into all our efforts, is there a solution to it? Or do we just have to throw enough resources to account for the corruption, and hope that an educated society with better infrastructure can start fighting the corruption problem themselves?

I think it's all about education

Educated people voted for Donald Trump in the USA, for AfD in Germany, for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, for Duterte in the Philippines, for Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Education does not appear to make people less stupid somehow...

Because intelligent people can't vote for Trump, AfD, or Bolsonaro?

In the case of the US (assuming you're American): do you actually think that half of our country is stupid?

Actually, only about half the people vote, so it was 26-27% of voters https://mises.org/wire/26-percent-eligible-voters-voted-trum...

Which I've always more associated with the Crazification Factor than outright stupidity: https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Crazification_factor

But it always helps to have Cipolla's Basic Laws of Human Stupidity bookmarked: https://qz.com/967554/the-five-universal-laws-of-human-stupi...

72% of Americans thought invading Iraq was a great idea. https://news.gallup.com/poll/8038/seventytwo-percent-america...

I respect all the sourcing and data, and I'll read the second and third articles in detail later so thank you for that. Your name is "hindsightbias", however, and you're citing "Americans who thought invading Iraq was a great idea" as a sign of stupidity?

The toilet he want to create are waterless its very important also to the africans but not at least for the large but often expensive cities that are going to grow over the next decades.

He is on of the few that actually do look for problems around him and solve them.

One of the things Gates' money pays for is Guinea Worm Eradication.

Guinea Worm is literally a parasitic worm. The eradication programme isn't about injecting people with a vaccination, building modern water treatment plants or deploying sophisticated drone technology, it's stuff like:

- Here are some free water filters. Filter the water from that murky pond before you drink it.

- When you have a worm, don't go in the water. Yes it feels cooler, that's because the worm wants you to go to the water, go to a free treatment clinic instead.

- If your neighbour has a worm, go to the clinic, tell them who the neighbour is, you both get cash money and the clinic will treat the worm. Hooray.

The biggest obstacles to Guinea Worm Eradication are not about Africa's lack of technology or its corruption.

The big obstacles are "insecurity" (ie civil wars or just violent criminals who control outlying areas) and "inaccessibility".

Inaccessibility is hard to comprehend for most of us, we're not used to truly being far from civilisation. People who live two days walk from anything resembling a road may have only heard rumours of the existence of the Guinea Worm clinics - for them a parasitic worm chewing its way out of your leg is just a routine hazard of normal rural living.

But yeah, Gates is already investing in the very lowest technology fixes, he isn't some tech nutjob who thinks we're going to solve desperate poverty with a Docker image.

"The biggest obstacles to Guinea Worm Eradication are not about Africa's lack of technology or its corruption.

The big obstacles are "insecurity" (ie civil wars or just violent criminals who control outlying areas) and "inaccessibility".


This is a contradiction.

My grandparents grew up on farms way in the back country of Canada, in ruthlessly inhospitable weather, on not exactly fertile soil. When my ancestors landed there they were 'many days walk' from anything remotely resembling civilization.

And yet there were no 'civil gang wars' etc..

If there were civility and rule of law, there wouldn't be gangs controlling territory willy nilly, and the term 'two days walk' wouldn't exist because there would at least be some form of basic transport, however crude.

I do accept that there might be some specific problems (i.e. diseases) that make it much more difficult, and I don't think Gates is wasting everyone's time - however - he's not after root causes, which are civic.

I googled Guinea Worms and was pleasantly surprised to see Jimmy Carter working on the problem. Supposedly, the worm is 99.9% eradicated and is on its way to be completely wiped off the face of the earth. Jimmy Carter and the people involved int his are awesome!

As an African I am with you on Africa's true problems. From the article though it seems Gates isn't just looking for a solution for Africa. He is looking at his from a humanity perspective. We aren't getting the most from our sewage. There are some low tech toilet designs that work relatively well in Africa. The Blair Toilet[0] being one.


He could well as, but I expect nobody would be much surprised over the answer: as you say, the problem of corruption is well known and merely exposing it again won't do much.

Tough if he secretly bought out a few accounting agencies and published all documents of the illicit money transfers going on that could probably have an effect as it makes the laundering harder.

> the problem of corruption is well known and merely exposing it again won't do much //

I disagree. Exposing it is what is needed as a first step. Continual, explicit, widespread exposure.

The problem there I suspect is those with power to do anything fear their own exposure; or they prefer to gain from being party of the international elite; or they choose to use it as leverage for other things.

hastily searches brain for a contrived intuition pump

In "Star Trek: The Next Generation", Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge does not have a tech problem. He has a lack-of-properly-functioning-eyes problem.

It's been solved with technology, though.

In this case, maybe technology will enable people to create a sanitary environment even in the face of impediments from the state.

erm low tech tech like Bill is funding is the right tech in this case.

And you work with the political system you have not the one you would like.

Sure, there's corruption in developing countries. You think Gates doesn't know that? The option in face of that is to do jack shit or make tech that can help.

Africa (and the world at large) has lots of problems. Some are technical and some are political. Just focusing on one issue means missing out on opportunities to improve people's lives in other ways.

There are already a lot of organizations working on governance -- maybe it's best if tech people focus on tech problems and let the governance people work on governance problems?

> dysfunctional or non-existent institutions, laws and organizational structures, as well as myriad forms of corruption from top to bottom

But these problems are much harder to solve than toilets and malaria nets, which is difficult enough as it is.

Big Issue is UN. UN was designed for a postwar scenario that has already disappeared.

Forums like this would accuse Gates of modern colonialism if he attempted any of the government reforms or accountability measures you describe.

Yes, that's essentially a root problem.

The corrupt leaders would use any plausible excuse to defend their fiefdoms ...'colonialism' would be an easy one to hide behind, and a lot of naive actors on our side would chime in in support. Sadly.

And rightfully so because the history of those kinds of interventions haven’t gone well historically.

Maybe. It's hard to prove that a quick big revolution followed by a civilization is better or worse than a long-term slow suffering-ridden development.

It many not be cool and glamorous but dealing with human waste in a hygienic way has been one of the biggest benefits to society that not many people think about. Better toilets means better overall hygiene which means less people sick which means a stronger more reliable workforce and less money wasted on easy to prevent illnesses.

For all of the negative things Bill Gates did when at Microsoft I am glad to see most of the money he made from those actions are being used for such positive things now rather than just going back into SV startups and the like.

Okay, I'll bite. I was at a urinal today that had a mesh screen of a style I'd never noticed, and I thought: Some guy with a degree in engineering/fluid dynamics has this on his resume.

But when you consider there are what, 3.5 billion or so males on the planet, the benefits of urinal hygiene add up pretty quickly.


A few years ago (maybe 10) we started getting "waterless" urinals in the UK. I assume that was a materials improvement (extreme hydrophobic coatings?). They have an outlet pipe, but no inlet.

That must save a lot of piping and water.

Not a materials improvement, but an improvement in the shape of the bowl, so mostly a direct result of better hydrodynamic and CAD modeling.

Not only do they use less water, but they /smell better/ -- most of the "smell of urine" results from the pee being added to, and reacting with, water, so no water, no noticeable odour.

They are plastic though, whilst water flushed toilets, eg in pubs, are always (?) ceramic.

Seems that it could be retrofitted easily by replacing the trap if the materials aren't important.

I wonder if patent expiration is responsible for the apparent increase in use of similar systems.

Thanks for your correction.


Interesting; I've only ever seen ceramic waterless urinals.

I've always wondered why we never really saw toilets in Star Trek. They never really could re-imagine them back then (or now).

I have several fully automatic Totos (which have to abide by California/US water usage rules).. and while the bidets, seat heating, and automisting (it sprays water every 15-30 seconds to try to keep the bowl clean) features are nice the water limits and bowl design make it a pain to clean and maintain if you get what I mean. It's also basically useless if theres no electricity, I believe you can manually flush once if the power goes out with a pull-cord. For western/developed countries I think there is still a big market for a better toilet.

In developing countries obviously infrastructure is an issue, but for sewage would a composting toilet not be a viable option? Maybe solar powered for some higher power exhaust and ventilation along with water treatment/sanitation. It's kind of the low tech version of how Star Trek would turn matter into energy.

> I've always wondered why we never really saw toilets in Star Trek.

When the original series was made, you couldn’t show a toilet on TV – it simply wasn’t allowed.

But, beginning in 1989 with the release of the feature film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, you do get the occasional glimpse of an actual toilet here and there.


This is the closest I could get from 1973, "The Sting"


That’s not TV; that is a feature film.

I'm confused. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is also a feature film, so I don't get your point.

Allowed as in illegal? Which country, what regulations?

Which intimates it was allowed but that studio policies, it again intimates, might be responsible. It does say one single TV series never showed a toilet, but only a tank.

Interesting taboo nonetheless.

I always thought it was just not done because it generally isn't moving a story on to show someone on the toilet. Books don't usually mention characters using the toilet either. I've played videogames with an eating mechanic but never one where you needed to defecate (though Sims could when I last played that).

I think it was more like a taboo. Not illegal but it was going to get cut anyway in the USA.

Yes, composting toilets are absolutely a solution for many countries but for some reason, they have never been well-supported enough to take hold. Many individual examples have been built that use locally available materials (like nets in a fishing village) but these are one-offs.

I saw some UN project but of course it was 20 toilets and 50,000 pages of reports and paperwork so that didn't really work out.

For much less money, Bill Gates could have produced some internationally accepted standard designs that could be open sourced for local production and even "flat pack" style for people to easily construct.

The guy has a great heart but this does look like a case of tech seeing everything as a technical problem.

>For western/developed countries I think there is still a big market for a better toilet. //

A way to _simply_ use rainwater that can be cheaply retrofitted would be good.

Our imaginations are so limited.

If they have teleportation technology, ...

TOTO has been researching and improving toilets for many years. I've been to their Toilet museum in Kitakyushu, Japan and it's just amazing the research they put into it, specially in water savings measures. What's missing for them, it's to make them more affordable to everyone.

Many Japanese companies could make so much money if they'd figure out the international markets.

Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Sony, Nintendo, Canon, Suzuki, Yamaha, Panasonic, Toshiba, etc. are household names. I'd say that the Japanese have plenty of internationally-savvy brands, I wouldn't pity them :p

For sure. The thing is, Japan is very industrious and innovative in certain areas, it could have many more international players if it would push more abroad. Much of their services sector for example is almost purely concentrated on domestic market. Same goes for heavy industries, household devices and media industries, with some exceptions in gaming. Toto is a perfect example - they were 20+ years early in washlet innovation but never marketed them much abroad. There's a tendency of giving up after just timid marketing campaigns abroad I think. The most successful examples are mainly where they've built up foreign subsidiaries with a certain amount of autonomy, such as Honda & Toyota in US and Europe.

The problem is that there is no way to make toilets "affordable" for people who really need it. These people who live in 3rd world countries barely manage to put up a roof on their head out of whatever material they can gather around. Their lives often run in debts with zero money to spare on anything. They often don't have money for two proper meals a day. The only "affordable" way for them to have toilet is if you built one for them for free.

There are 892 million people without toilet as per Wikipedia. Assuming 10 people sharing toilet, cost of building one toilet is $500 (assuming government gives land for free), solving this problem will require ~$50B investment world wide. This is about half of own money Gates foundation can possibly donate. Also, critical part is ongoing maintenance. So self-maintaining toilets that is very cheap to setup is very critical research to solve this problem.

Toilets can be cheaper than you expect - in some places cultural barriers may be the main problem. Here's an extract from an excellent book called Poor Economics [1]:


The conventional wisdom is that today, at $20 per household per month, providing piped water and sanitation is too expensive for the budget of most developing countries. The experience of Gram Vikas, an NGO that works in Orissa, India, shows, however, that it is possible to do it much more cheaply. Its CEO, Joe Madiath, a man with a self-deprecating sense of humor who attends the annual meeting of the worlds rich and powerful at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in outfits made from homespun cotton, is used to doing things differently. Madiaths career as an activist started early: He was twelve when he first got into troublefor organizing the labor on the plantation that his father owned. He came to Orissa in the early 1970s with a group of left-wing students to help out after a devastating cyclone. After the immediate relief work was over, he decided to stay and see if he could find some more permanent ways to help the poor Oriya villagers. He eventually settled on water and sanitation. What attracted him to the issue was that it was simultaneously a daily challenge and an opportunity to initiate long-term social change. He explained to us that in Orissa, water and sanitation are social issues. Madiath insists that every single household in the villages where Gram Vikas operates should be connected to the same water mains: Water is piped to each house, which contains a toilet, a tap, and a bathing room, all connected to the same system. For the high-caste households, this means sharing water with low-caste households, which, for many in Orissa, was unacceptable when first proposed. It takes the NGO a while to get the agreement of the whole village and some villages eventually refuse, but it has always stuck to the principle that it would not start its work in a village until everyone there agreed to participate. When agreement is finally reached, it is often the first time that some of the upper-caste households participate in a project that involves the rest of the community.

Once a village agrees to work with Gram Vikas, the building work starts and continues for one to two years. Only after every single house has received its tap and toilet is the system turned on. In the meantime, Gram Vikas collects data every month on who has gone to the health center to get treated for malaria or diarrhea. We can thus directly observe what happens in a village as soon as the water starts flowing. The effects are remarkable: Almost overnight, and for years into the future, the number of severe diarrhea cases falls by one-half, and the number of malaria cases falls by one-third. The monthly cost of the system for each household, including maintenance, is 190 rupees, or $4 per household (in current USD), only 20 percent of what is conventionally assumed to be the cost of such a system.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Poor-Economics-Radical-Rethinking-Pov...

I don't know if it's in this book, but I remember reading that apparently there's also a "class shaming" effect that can also help: if you can get the poorest members of a group to do something which is perceived as advanced and ultimately beneficial, everyone does it, eventually, out of shame of being "outwitted" by the poor.

The book Diffusion of Innovations [1962] has a few case studies about that.



This is the seminal book on marketing, social cognition, innovation, etc. It blew my mind. Mostly that we've known this stuff for so long, but apparently must keep rediscovering it.

Shit article. Basically it says, Gates has poured money into sanitation, and went to an expo.

No info about the technology, but there is mention of 5cents a day running cost. That's cheaper than my existing provider, so count me in.

Closing quotes were good.

“I never imagined that I’d know so much about poop,” Gates said in remarks prepared for the Beijing event. “And I definitely never thought that Melinda would have to tell me to stop talking about toilets and fecal sludge at the dinner table.”

Bypass the article.

Toilets are a great example of how technological progress isn't just endless improvement. Sometimes we hit complete dead ends even on the simplest problems.

There have been lots of toilet innovations "recently".

Toilets that use excrement to generate electricity, for example, like in this situation https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-41680867.

I read the headline and thought, "That's weird, Gates isn't really interested in things that just save money these days." And sure enough, from the article:

> "...may help end almost 500,000 infant deaths and save $233 billion annually in costs linked to diarrhea, cholera and other diseases..."

So I guess that's Bloomberg for you. 233 billion dollars is a way more interesting lede than a mere half a million lives.

Things that aren't cost effective don't normally work at scale. So this is what differentiates it from a feel-good PR stunt that will go nowhere. Cynical to be sure, but grounded in historical precedent.

For the public they aim at? Definitely.

I've always believed that one of the signs that humanity is headed towards a post-scarcity world is when every human has access to a working toilet with a sanitized plumbing system. Glad to see Gates putting so many resources into solving this issue.

Perhaps we need to start having a conversation about which 'version' of Gates has had a bigger impact on society(not that it matters, but an interesting intellectual pursuit). I vote for post-Microsoft Gates, though I would imagine I'm in the minority.

I have to ask: the results of this research are amazing, but isn't this something that we should all realize is of material importance? Why did it take the funding of a benevolent economic dictator?

If you question my assertion of his economic role, this podcast [1] goes into the questionable aspects of the philanthropy of the Gates Foundation and some of the experiments being run in Africa without popular democratic input or consent.

[1] https://medium.com/@CitationsPodcst/episode-46-the-not-so-be...

Most democracies are not even good at funding medical research for dramatic, emotionally immediate diseases like cancer or dementia. One can only imagine the response that tabloids like Bild, the Daily Mail or Fox News would have if any of our countries spent $200m on toilets for the developing world. This is a perfect example of why capitalism works in my opinion, because you have power bases who can independently pursue unfashionable or undramatic ideas without having to pursuade a population of millions to back them in advance.

>> contained as many as 200 trillion rotavirus cells

Journalists can't grasp that saying a rotavirus is a cell is like stretching a wrench to be a SUV? What kind of twisted education system can get somebody to become so proficient with words and so noob in basic science?

"200 trillion rotavirus cells," at least in other sources, is written as a direct quotation from Gates.

Toilet Day was recognized by UN in 2013 and is celebrated on November 19th. I guess this report was issued in preparation.

UN still doesn’t recognize International Men’s Day, which is on Nov 19 too and celebrated since 2003 [1]. It’s a bit of a humiliation that they put Toilet Day instead.

[1] http://internationalmensday.com

Has anyone tried to make an SV startup-style company sell Japanese-type toilets in America? I think a lot of people would like them

I have a couple of Toto toilets in my house. They have washlets that fit most of their products. I have one.

I don't mean to overstate this, but it is life-changing. I can't imagine going back to a time when I used only paper and considered that sufficient.

I wanted to get one after visiting Japan, but I realized that it was something that would have to wait until I moved into a place with more than one bathroom, so I could leave a normal toilet in the one guests would use. I just didn’t want to have a conversation about it with every person who visited my home.

The 'tools' are optional though?

Anyway, install a spray hose behind the toilet out of the way. I've used both the hose and the high-tech toilets and I'd pick the former any day.

I echo that the toilet hose or (apparently this is the common slang for them) "bum guns" that you see in many Asian restrooms would be pretty cool to retrofit to a Western restroom (they really are more sanitary than the simple paper wipe, MHO). They are indeed pretty cheap. Scanning forums, though, there are two points I see that one would have to consider.

The first seems to be that hoses / sprayers can be little more prone to leaking or, even in proper operation, creating a bit of a spray mess vs a typical Western toilet installation. Most Asian restrooms designed around toilet hoses have floor drains, so the dangers of general flooding and water mess are a lot less. Western bathrooms typically lack full-room floor drains. This point I can honestly see, which is why the built in washlet might have to be the practical solution for many Western bathroom designs unfortunately.

A more "technical" issue is that these toilet hoses may not be "up to Western code" in some countries per a few forum posts. The impression I get is the code violations are more "technicalities" due to Western code not really considering this concept. Forum posts are not what I would consider an authority, but it is enough where I think it would be a good idea to check with a plumber to see if there's any code the sprayers could somehow violate.

I just installed this on my toilet. Pretty cheap and works well! https://www.amazon.com/Astor-Non-Electric-Mechanical-Attachm...

When you say "Western", which countries are you referring to? I ask because in Finland at least, bidet showers are very common, although so are floor drains in toilets. Nevertheless, I'm not aware of any widespread issues with leaks or mis-spraying.

Sorry, by "Western" I more refer to the countries (United States, Canada, UK) where bidets of any sort do not seem to be common at all. There are also other Western countries (such as France, Germany, and Spain) where I remember bidets being common, but they were stand-alone plumbing fixtures and not a simple hose shower like you see in many Asian countries. This type is probably a lot more expensive to add onto a US bathroom or similar.

I wasn't aware of toilet hoses being standard in Finland, thanks for the information. I'm currently in Malaysia for a couple weeks and personally I am seeing a little bit of mis-spray when using some public restrooms; the misspray issue popped up when looking at forums as well as well. Maybe the issue can be more easily mitigated than I thought (personally, I don't have a problem making sure the spray stays inside the bowl) but plumbing codes might like the drain just in case (it's not easy looking up technical codes in an unfamiliar language so I'm not sure about this though :) ).

It is probably a lot harder to mitigate this type of issue with the "squat" type toilet (you see a random mixture of both types it seems over here).

Good points, my bathroom does indeed have a drain. As long as you don't have a carpeted bathroom I wouldn't worry too much though. Just don't have full on pressure.

No conversation needed. If people can't seem to figure it out, they're the sort that won't want to talk about it. See the aforementioned western taboo around discussing such things.

If they do figure it out, folks are generally eager to ask about where they can get one.

A friend of mine brought a toilet back from Japan with him when he moved back and I was always in envy. I'm looking at a Toto Neorest 700H right now, it's about $5000. Is that the kind of system you'd recommend or what are you using?

A Toto s550e is under $1000 and pretty much has all the feature you ever need, minus auto flushing.

This. I think I even have a cheaper version than that. Check Amazon for available washlets.

The mass-market Toto toilets are ~$250. Make sure you get the elongated bowl version. I have two in my house, one elongated and one round. The washlet for the round bowl was hard to source and it makes things somewhat cramped for larger people.

If I were doing it again, I'd replace the toilet with an elongated bowl version before adding a washlet.

I agree 100% about the life changing part. But for a cheap solution, go with a hose attached to the toilet. I'd say I prefer them over the Japanese versions. More versatile and the only thing you really lose is the .. heating?

I do agree that the shower hose looking thing next to the toilet cleans just as well and is a lot cheaper, but for my money? I personally think the automatic nature of the toto is an entirely different (and, imho, better) overall experience.

(and the heating is not to be underestimated)

Maybe. My thing has adjustable pressure, it oscillates, and one can adjust the location.

The warmed water is nice, but it has an "eco" mode so there are definitely times when it's not warmed and it's no big deal. I'd guess the biggest advantage would be the ability to just sit there and have the robotic arm take care of things for you without having to move around.

In a large part of central Europe they have bidets, which is a lower-tech version of the same thing.

Holy moly, how do you pick a specific toilet from that lineup? That's hilarious.

Unless you want something fancy, just check Amazon. The most commonly installed ones are obvious and quiet a bit cheaper.

I've installed a few toilets in my day and they were always a few hundred dollars. I was a bit blown away when I discovered that some of the nicer ones could be had for $5k.

Bathtubs similarly soar in price when one wants something a little fancier.

Most bathrooms aren't wired for electricity near the toilet.

That aside, you can buy Toto toilets in the US. The fancy ones are north of 4k, but they are available.

Cold water sprays are readily available, $60 and a 10 minute installation later.

I just wanted to point out that the US prices are pretty comparable to the Japanese prices. And after having lived in Japan for nearly a decade, I'll pay the price in a heartbeat. The previous occupants of our apartment left one in our apartment and it's one of the cheaper models (about $3-400 IIRC). It's still awesome and worth every cent. You could probably even justify it based on the reduction in toilet paper if you want to, but I don't even think of it. It's gotten to the point where when I go back to visit the UK or Canada, the lack of cleaning options is just disgusting in my mind.

Edit: weird wording

Totally agree, I have a cold water replacement seat type of model, I can't justify getting my bathroom rewired when a $60 device is pretty close almost there. :)

My master bathroom toilet is right up against the closet my water heater is in, so the "cold" water is never that cold.

I have somewhat inexpensive mass-market Toto toilets in my house. I've added a washlet for $400. There's wiring nearby. The warm water is really nice.

Until I die, I won't ever not have a washlet at home.

Wow, solid link. Hopefully some clever entrepreneur will make it happen, someday


You posted a couple sentence opinion and he/she posted a link with a lot of detail and mentioned an SV startup trying to solve it, which is what I asked. So thanks for your comment, I’m not saying it’s irrelevant, but the link was descriptive and more closely matched my question

It wasn't an opinion. If you are too blind to see the facts then that's your own fault. You asked a question, you got the answer and now you're so upset with it that you're trying to hide it?

What's the point?

Here are some figures for your fingers.

A toilet lasts 10+ years easily. It costs around $200-$300 and extra to install. The installation is simple since most bathrooms have a toilet. A bidet attachment can be picked up for $300-$500 easy. The installation is usually more expensive than the seat itself. Most bathrooms don't put power outlets next to their toilets.

People aren't not using bidets because of "funny feelings" or just being shy. It's because people are too lazy, a toilet does the same thing "in their eyes". Why add complexity when the toilet itself is dirt cheap and lasts much longer than the bidet?

Maybe when they come in with bidets, not making money and not revolutionising anything, perhaps someone will come sell hangover cure drinks even though it takes 10 seconds to realise the market doesn't exist.

Feel free to ignore these facts too. It's clear you're not looking for the right answer here, just something that will echo your own thoughts.

We've banned this account for repeatedly violating the site guidelines.


> Has anyone tried to make an SV startup-style company sell Japanese-type toilets in America? I think a lot of people would like them

I think google is indirectly in that business; It used to be that only my foreign friends would be likely to have a washlet, and then usually a less fancy one. But in the last decade, more and more of my American born techie friends have bought toto toilets or washlets, I assume after experiencing that luxury at google or one of the other tech companies that provide that sort of thing.

Mostly you only need to replace the lid+seat to get those.

There's a few companies selling Japanese bidet seats in the UK and some that provide translated control panels. No reason they wouldn't succeed in the US too.

Only the highest priced ones are the complete toilet.

> There's a few companies selling Japanese bidet seats in the UK

Do you have one? Are you able to make any recommendations? I'm considering getting one, but how are they powered? The idea of a power socket in my bathroom is slightly horrifying.

We decided not to in the end.

Power is easy. Only sockets allowed in bathrooms are low voltage shaver sockets with isolating transformer.

For storage heaters, these seats, and heated towel rails in your bathroom you connect to a fixed, fused, double pole switch, spur outlet. Something like this: https://www.screwfix.com/p/mk-13a-dp-switched-fused-connecti...

BioBidet has been selling them for years. A couple hundred $ gets you a heated seat, heated water, air dry, everything. They're actually increasing in popularity stateside rapidly.

I would think so, I've found Toto toilets to be common in the bay area, especially in the workplaces of startups and tech companies.

Considering people keep toilets for 5-10 years per toilet on average and the cost of a toilet is much less than the cost of an electrical bidet... It is not a great idea.

5-10 years? Is that the life expectancy of the average modern toilet?

From personal experience that seems off by a few decades.

I have never actually heard of anyone buying a new toilet. I'm sure it happens, but 5-10 years? My parents' house still has the same toilet it had when they moved in 30-odd years ago, and it works as well as it ever did.

Also, I dunno about the electrical ones, but you can get a non-electric bidet for like $25 off Amazon. Maybe a bit more for one with hot and cold hook-ups and a temperature knob. You just run it with the nozzle aimed down until it warms up.

In general I agree with you regarding the lifetime, the exceptions are areas that goes through expanding housing prices.

For example, good luck finding a bathroom in a central Stockholm flat that is more than 5 years old due to the housing market 2000-2017.

The amount of money spent on bathroom remodels really baffles me. Credit expansion made people throw out new bathrooms, redo them and then revaluate their flat to make the mortgage cover the cost.

A nice bathroom renovation cost about $27k while the net annual salary probably is around $40k.

Due to this, my bet is that the people depending on bathroom remodels are the people that will get squeezed first now when the housing market has turned bearish.

I bought three toilets when I bought my house, because the ones there were here didn't work. My in-laws bought a few toilets a couple years ago because theirs sprung a leak in the tank that was unfixable. Also, the water company gave rebates if you switched out your old one for a new efficient one.

I assume a lot of people buy toilets every day, otherwise Home Depot wouldn't have an entire aisle dedicated to them...

People build new houses, extend their current ones, replace broken ones. I'd still bet on the average lifetime of one to be over 20 years...

> people keep toilets for 5-10 years per toilet on average

Do you have any data to back this up? I would have assumed it was far less often.

Yah, who the heck is turning over their toilets twice a decade? Best guess here is 25 year average service life.

Then that only proves my point further.

Toilets in my family would get replaced every 15 years.

And what connection could it possibly have to installation of a bidet seat?!

You can but them here already. Just no one does

Where and can you also buy them in Europe? I looked when remodelling my bathroom and couldn't find anything.


Not sure if that link works but just go on amazon and search “Toto washlet”

There were quite a few bathroom companies offering them when we did our bathroom (UK), they're available on eBay too from £40 junk to £1,000+

I saw an ad in the magazine “Schöner Wohnen“.

Here in Japan, most Westerners tend to hate Japanese-style toilets with passion...?

Are you talking about the squat toilets? Because the other smart toilets are very nice, even if you don't use the cleaning options, having a heated seat in the winter is amazing.

Ah, yes. Squat toilets are usually called "Japanese style toilets" so that got me confused.

They are also called Turkish or Roman toilets.

Weirdly, they are called Turkish toilet in Turkish, too.

Squat toilets are the best. So much nicer to poop on than your bog-standard porcelain throne. Aside from the pooping benefits, they also keep you limber by forcing you into a deep squat on a regular basis.

Gates does wonderful things with his philanthropy. I notice that he doesn't invest in any social issues or in politics, even when the politics is directly related (e.g., does he lobby the politicians or try to move the public regarding education funding?). Why not? Is it a policy?

Prior generations of philanthropists invested heavily in peace and justice, for example, including the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Certainly our society today has major problems in those areas - arguably we have great success with tech, which he does invest in, and have been terrible and social and political issues. Also, those problems in some ways directly harm Gates' goals (for example, U.S. political and racial issues greatly affect U.S. education), in other ways they lead to policies, such as nationalist economics, that will reduce economic activity and thus investment in these issues, and in yet in other ways the problems impose costs on people that dwarf the benefits Gates' programs provide - the oppression of Western-backed dictators and the cost of potential warfare being among them.

I realize I've assumed it's a policy of Gates', but does anyone have real knowledge about why he avoids those issues?

According to https://www.gatesfoundation.org/How-We-Work/General-Informat... they do not fund “Political campaigns and legislative lobbying efforts”

As to reasons, why, I am not sure but I imagine there is a pragmatic angle to it in addition to reputation and other considerations. Investing in politics increases the risk that the funds get wasted if the political climate changes.

> Gates does wonderful things with his philanthropy. I notice that he doesn't invest in any social issues or in politics, even when the politics is directly related (e.g., does he lobby the politicians or try to move the public regarding education funding?). Why not? Is it a policy?

I believe that is on purpose. He doesn't want his work to become politicized in the way that others have (e.g. George Soros, Kochs). From a purely philanthropic point of view, I think this is the right move. He probably takes the view that if you make people's lives better and give them good education, the rest will follow, in the long run.

>> I notice that he doesn't invest in any social issues or in politics

I would argue that he do invest a lot in social issues and politics, but that he invest in fixing the cause not the symptom. Improving education and reducing poverty is, in my opinion at least, one of the best ways to improve the causes leading to a lack of peace and justice. Putting more money in the pockets of corrupt politicians, aka lobbying, is at best putting a patch on the symptom.

Politics is extremely divisive and, even more importantly, is perhaps no longer a major vessel to enact meaningful longterm change. There is of course the issue of one decade's change being overwritten by the next decade's party. But there's something more fundamental. In times past government was able to enact huge changes, because government enacted and enforced policies that directly harmed society. Slavery is the most obvious one. Government worked as an enforcer for slavery and was equally able to end it with little more than a vote and stroke of a pen. But in today's era I think we've started to reach an era of sharply diminishing returns for governmental action because the issues are ones that are less systemic and, in any case, cannot be directly solved by government in any completely clear way.

For instance you mention education. If you poll most people on our state of education in the US the results would have little to nothing to do with reality. And that reality is that we already spend an immense amount on it - more than nearly anywhere in the world. This isn't a proxy for population size, I am referring to cost per student of course. And this also isn't just a proxy for ridiculous university costs. If you look at only education costs outside of university, we are the 5th biggest spender in the world. And similarly this isn't a proxy for private spending with wealthier folks sending their kids to private institutions. If you compare just our public spending on this same group of education, we end up 7th in the world - comparing just our public spending to everywhere else's public + private spending. And as an aside, those costs are all normalized to account for the fact that a dollar goes a lot further in many places than the US - meaning we are indeed comparing apples to apples, by multiplying other nations' nominal spending.

All numbers mentioned here from the OECD data [1]. They list the private/public spending in GDP relative ratios which does silly things like put South Africa and Costa Rica as the world leaders in education, but you can convert those figures into something useful. For instance in the US our GDP relative share of public spending on education outside of university is 3.207. Our GDP relative share of private spending on education outside of university is 0.307. Therefore of all our spending on non-university education, 3.207/(3.207+0.307) = 91.3% is public. You can now take this and apply it to our gross spend on non-university education ($12,424.3 dollars per student) to see that we publicly spend 12423.3 * .913 = $11,342 per student per year on education outside of university - which leads to our public spending being higher than every other nation's, excepting 6, public+private spending

The point of this is that most people think that we just need to spend more money on education and everything would be dandy. No, our problems are more fundamental and require solutions that are in no way obvious. Bill Gates, though I do not particularly agree with his direction, is working towards trying to create these very sort of solutions. And these solutions, should he be correct, are what actually have the possibility of enacting real longterm change.

[1] - https://data.oecd.org/eduresource/education-spending.htm

Syndicalism is one possible solution, like what's being done in Jackson, MS [1]

[1] https://cooperationjackson.org

I recommend The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins. The definitive guide to humanure composting, and the best reference for general composting I've read.

The Gates Foundation focuses on real problems and how they can be implemented in the real world to actually solve things that work with the environment, economy and culture symbiotically as opposed to paying for porta-potties and drop shipping them. Knowing how to solve something is the point over blind action that has minimal chance of success. For me, this is the charity worth giving to if you must pick one.

Since I recently read The Expanse, I keep thinking, more than usual, about the basic life supporting technologies we'd need to be able to live anywhere else in the solar system.

In The Expanse all biological waste goes into the recycler, which, evidently, feeds a bioreactor to general clean water and new food.

It sounds like what Gates is keen to see deployed: Human waste > fertiliser > new food and hydrogen > fuel cell > energy & water.

We're still a long waste from having anything anywhere near a closed system. Baby steps.

Side question: are the books sufficiently different to the TV series to warrant a reading?

A lot of the key events are the same, although the timeline is moved around to introduce some characters sooner. The books go into far more detail about the cultures and their values, and backstory to the characters.

I personally recommend it. I'm typically quite busy so I don't really make my way through more than 1-2 books a month but I think I read all the books that are currently out in about 6 weeks.

not seen all of the series but it seems to be mashing together the first few books.

IMHO they are probably better than the series but they start getting not so good at some point - I cannot remember if i have read them all but i do remember it getting a bit boring / dragged out towards the end.

it is ultimately in that class of media where the goal is not so much about saying something to telling a story as it is about making an ongoing revenue stream.

I generally stick away from this stuff but sci-fi books seem to all be going this way these days :(

Most people don’t think about all the factors of waste disposal. 200,000,000/100,000/7 = 285 educated peoples’ salary for 7 years. Now thow in expenses. Doesn’t seem excessive given the multitude of issues. What’s the full disposal story? Throw in expenses and my response is “... and?”

As a SF homeless guy who frequently tweets about my hardships with pooping/water/grossness, I welcome toilet innovation like this.

"And I definitely never thought that Melinda would have to tell me to stop talking about toilets and fecal sludge at the dinner table"

I wonder how much of the benefit from all this type of work will be wiped out due to climate change. Seems like increased coastal flooding, conflicts over scare resources, droughts, etc. will harm the most vulnerable far more than the benefit of all these programs combined. Like we'll win a battle but will lose the war.

One of my colleagues spent a lot of time working on combination anthropological/aid missions. According to him, toilets/waste disposal was usually the number one way to help people in remote or less developed areas.

I’d like to meet Gates one day and shake his hand and just tell him I’m glad he’s doing so much good with his wealth. I take for granted a lot and he’s helping to lift those that would love to have what I have.

I wish he hadn't accumulated all this wealth at the cost of strangling computing worldwide under his semi-broken operating system.

I not a fan of royalty, autocrats, or monarchs. Just because one person is OK when given that power doesn't make it morally just. It is good he is doing nice things, but I find it troubling.

He was a shrewd maybe ruthless businessman that's for sure -- but he's doing amazing things with his wealth now -- maybe this is his penitence?

Surprisingly related: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ILoo

one potential area of innovation for toilets is in hospitals or pharmacies where people could defecate/urinate in a "smart toilet" which chemically analyzes the waste matter and sends results to a central lab for reporting.

when technology gets cheap enough, these smart toilets could then move from healthcare businesses into the home, analyzing waste matter on a daily basis to yield health insights.

Anytime this idea comes up I have to mention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJklHwoYgBQ

A funny parody of SV but also has some neat ideas.


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