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By Joel Klebanoff

Flushing Nanotechnology

I take it all back, every word. All of my past incessant whining and complaining about the absurdities of so many of our gadgets and the weird, disturbing idiosyncrasies that have resulted from their use have been undeserved. Finally, somebody is selling a technology so incredibly useful that it makes up for (and possibly flushes away) all of the crap that high-tech vendors have foisted on us in the past. When Victoria, the editor of this column, pointed me to an article in ExtremeNano, all I needed to do was read the headline in the brief email teaser to know that I had to write about the story.

What could possibly be so wonderful as to lead me, an incontrovertible skeptic and inveterate whiner, to sing its praises? Apparently, you can now buy a nanotechnology-based, self-cleaning toilet. Yes, that's right, a self-cleaning toilet, using nanotechnology no less. At least, that's what it said in the email teaser for the article. Now that's progress!

A self-cleaning toilet particularly interests me. For nine out of the past 10 years, I've been the hands-down winner of the global slob-of-the-year award. The coveted prize, a gold-plated dust bunny, is presented in an exciting, vermin-studded ceremony held annually in a major Los Angeles-area garbage dump. Someone in Botswana took the title away from me three years ago, but I heard that he's been committed to an institution, so I shouldn't have any serious competition in the future.

I don't enjoy being a slob; quite the contrary. But I prefer being a slob to the effort required to tidy up. I would hire someone to come in and clean, but I have a grave mania that prevents me from allowing anyone to come in and touch my stuff. OK. I'm sick. I know it. I would seek help, but I also have an intense, irrational fear of psychiatrists and psychologists. Who am I going to get to help me overcome that one? But I digress. Back to self-cleaning, nanotechnology toilets.

Oh, wait. Maybe I should have actually read the article first, rather than just skimming the email teaser, before beginning to write this column. It appears that the invention is not all that I thought it was. Who would have imagined that hype around a new technology would end up not being all that it appears at first glance? That sort of thing doesn't happen, does it?

It seems that the toilet is not really self-cleaning. Once I got past the first few paragraphs of the article I found that, well, no, actually I would still need to clean this toilet, but the cleaning effort is reduced. Reduced effort is good, but when it comes to cleaning--particularly, but not exclusively cleaning toilets — zero is what I'm after.

To be fair, I can't blame the vendor, TOTO, for using unwarranted hype. I couldn't find any mention of "self-cleaning" on TOTO's Web site. For all I know, it could have been hyperbole written by someone not associated with TOTO who wanted to get people like me to click-through from the email teaser to read the article. If so, it worked. Hope springs eternal.

The way the toilet works is it uses a ceramic glaze that creates a surface that is nonporous and much smoother than what is found on normal toilets. To see the difference you'd need a microscope. Nonetheless, if the article and the vendor's contentions are correct, it's enough of a difference such that the substances that respected, learned scientists refer to as "yucky stuff" (hey, scientists are people too) are much less likely to adhere to the toilet bowl.

Just as an aside, TOTO also sells upscale toilets and add-ons that offer things like a built-in bidet with a "dual action spray with cycling movement and massage feature" and a warm air blower for drying, a seat warmer, and a "convenient wireless remote control with large LCD panel." That seat warmer could come in handy now that we have indoor plumbing in the igloos that we all use for housing up here in Canada. I couldn't find any more information on TOTO's Web site about the remote control, which is too bad. Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm a bit confused. I can't think of how I could make use of a toilet from a sufficient distance for the wireless remote to be of much benefit. My aim is not that good.

TOTO also offers antibacterial seats. That sounds like a pretty good idea, but I worry a little bit about it. (What, me worry?) Why am I concerned about something that sounds as good as fighting bacteria? There are those who contend that children who go to daycare in their early years do get a lot more infections there, but they also build up their immune systems and, therefore, do a better job of fighting off more serious diseases in their later years compared to others of their cohort who stayed at home in those early years. The UK Childhood Cancer Study, the largest-ever study into the causes of leukemia, the results of which were released in April 2005, suggests the disease prevention benefit of daycare may even extend to childhood leukemia.

I have not one shred of scientific evidence to back it up, but I think it might be the same with toilet seats and other common sources of bacteria. Coming into contact with the occasional bacteria on a toilet seat might help us to exercise our immune systems and make them stronger. Then again, maybe I'm just trying to rationalize my slovenly ways. You be the judge.

Back to these non-self-cleaning, "self-cleaning" toilets. Even though the toilet is not really self-cleaning, it's still an exciting development in one respect. It's a practical example of nanotechnology in action at the consumer level. Well, maybe not. Read the second-to-last paragraph of the article and you'll find out that some purists insist that it is not really an example of nanotechnology, just nanotechnology-ish. I shouldn't be surprised that some latitude was allowed in the use of the term "nanotechnology," since the article appeared in a nanotechnology-focused publication. I guess it was a slow news day on the nanotechnology front.

Again, I can't blame the vendor itself for getting me excited about the nanotechnology angle. I couldn't find any mention of the word "nanotechnology" on its Web site.

The article also mentioned that the toilet is not the first application of nanotechnology to everyday cleaning problems. The article talks about titanium dioxide-coated windows that use UV light to oxidize organic debris. The windows also force water to flow over the glass in a sheet rather than forming droplets. According to the article, a simple hose or rain shower rinses the glass clean. That sounds like a nice idea, but I live in a condo and I'm not allowed to replace the windows. Even if I could get the condo board to agree to allow me to install the new high-tech windows, I'd probably have a hard time snaking a long garden hose into my unit, which is on the second and third floors of the building, to clean the inside of the glass.

If that one article is any indication, it doesn't sound as if nanotechnology is quite where I want it to be yet. Just so that scientists working in the field don't go wildly off in the wrong direction, allow me to use the rest of this paragraph to tell them what I'm looking for. When I take a glob of your nanotechnology gray goo and look at it under an exceptionally powerful microscope, what I want to see are millions of Mr. Clean look-alikes. Their primary purpose in life should be to clean all of my possessions continuously and as thoroughly as possible, without any direction from me. If they could also set me up on a hot date with an exceptionally intelligent, kindhearted, beautiful woman, that would definitely be a bonus.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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