Monday, December 5, 2016

Admission Standards

I may not be the world's greatest mechanic or handyman, but I can hold my own around the house, and I do know how to fix a toilet. I just never thought that my toilet-fixing skill could serve as an admission quality for M.I.T. But this is what you learn when you read obituaries.

I'm sure somewhere there is an industrial exhibit on toilets through the years. Maybe at a Kolher or American Standard, a museum attached to corporate headquarters.

I remember the huge wooden tank above the toilet at my grandmother's in the early 50s. You pulled a chain with a wooden knob at the end and Niagara Falls came schussing, rushing, gurgling through the drain pipe and into the toilet. The tank in any setup is actually the "water closet." (The words "water closet" got Jack Parr in TV do-do in the 50s. They were considered unmentionable by the censors.)

Of course in those days those tanks held a lot of water. There was no such thing as a one gallon flush. A full seven or more made it into the bowl and made it possible for Lilliputians to go white water rafting, if there were any Lilliputians around.

I loved pulling that chain. No one's home other than my grandmother's apartment had an overhead tank. When I visited my uncle in Greece in the mid-6os their bathroom had an overhead tank. I always felt my uncle would then feel a bit nostalgic for the old 18th Street apartment where he and his brothers grew up over the flower shop.

I always lived in a home with a toilet tank and a toilet bowl. And when there was that time, as there always is, when the water seems to keep going and never stop going into the bowl, when someone tells you to "just jiggle" the handle, you've reached the appointed hour when someone should lift the lid of the toilet tank and see what's going on.

A November 17 obituary for Jay W. Forrester, 98, a pioneer in computer models, gets around to his opinion on what an incoming freshman should know: how a toilet works.

Aside from this piece of opinion, the obituary, by Kate Hafner, shows off the value of what a simple quote from a deceased subject can add to the tale of their life.

The Wall Street Journal is now weekly presenting a trio of obituaries, one main one, and two smaller ones in a bit of  a triptych. Both The Times and The Journal highlight Mr Forrester's accomplishments, and they are significant. They center around computers and simulations of business problems, something that became to be called "system dynamics."

Mr. Forrester grew up on a remote ranch in western Nebraska and was just plain curious as a kid how things worked. While in high school he devised a wind generator that bought electricity to the ranch. Being 98 in 2016 puts his year of birth at 1918, an era when rural areas had no electricity. They were all off the grid. There was no national grid.

Growing up, when our toilet started letting water run constantly through, it I did lift the lid and looked at how this thing worked. And I will say, the internal mechanics of a toilet haven't really changed. In the nearly 60 years I've been lifting the lid and staring into the pool of dark water, I can tell you things haven't changed. It is still a Rube Goldberg device. I am amazed and dismayed at that, but that's the way it is.

There's the outside lever you push down, attached to a life rod that either has a thin rod or a chain attached to a rubber stopper that should fit snugly over the drain pipe. When this rubber stopper wears away over time, the seal with the drain is not solid, thus allowing water to escape, making that sound that leads people to tell you to, "just jiggle the handle,"

This can work for awhile, re-seating the stopper, but it's just a band-id, so to speak. Also inside the tank is an intake tube and a float device, or float switch, that closes off the incoming tank water as the height rises to just near the top. Thus, your tank can fill up and not overflow (very key to the operation) and provide you with what these days is the one gallon flush that the code says you should have.

I have to tell you, I hate fixing toilets. Just recently the outside handle, lever came loose from the tank. The gasket had worn out and all the handle could do was sort of flap in the wind; it lost its connection to the rest of the works. Manual flushing was in order until the replacement part was purchased.

The first replacement package was flawed; the plastic gears that are supposed to mesh with the lift rod were broken. A return and replacement of the replacement was in order. I hate a toilet I can't fix on the spot.

The toilet works well now, with a nice forceful gush of water that reaches the bowl. Mr. Forrester's obituary closes with the acknowledgment of his seven decades at M.I.T. as a student and a professor, with a quote that he doesn't understand why current students don't seem to know how things work. He asked students in an engineering class if they understood how the toilet tank stopped filling up and didn't overflow.

"I asked them, 'How many of you ever took the lid off a toilet tank to see how it works?' None of them had. How do you get into M.I.T. without ever having looked inside a toilet tank?"

Let me tell you what strikes me. How did anyone ever fix that overhead wooden toilet tank when it needed attention?

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