A flushing toilet — hooked up to a fresh water supply and a stable sewage line — is something many people take for granted. While this actually marvelous system has run all over the U.S., Canada, and Europe, it's not yet universal. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 2.3 billion people don't have access to the basic sanitation afforded by modern plumbing. But all those people still turn food into waste, and all that excreted material has to go somewhere. It ends up going pretty much everywhere, including into soil or into bodies of water, sometimes causing the rapid spread of nasty and potentially fatal diseases like cholera and dysentery.
This problem weighs on the minds of plenty of people, including some of the world's most inventive scientists and some of the crusading heads of charitable foundations that can help make research into better toilets and widespread sanitation possible. In the latter category, for example, there's Bill Gates. The founder of Microsoft — who is also the world's "computer guy" and whose name is synonymous with "wealthy beyond imagination" — spends most of his time these days, along with his wife, funding and facilitating projects via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since 2011, the foundation says it's invested $200 million (and pledged another $200 million) to improve the toilet issue in the developing world.
On November 6, 2018, Bill Gates spoke at the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing, China, a place where inventors and organizations showed off cutting-edge, bacteria-killing, literally life-saving bathroom technology. Gates really wanted to drive home his message about how dangerous (and disgusting) of a problem poor sanitation can be, and so during his speech, he held up a jar (sealed, thankfully) of human feces (no word on whether or not it was his own deuce) to demonstrate how many toxic bacteria are present in even a small amount of human dingleberries. The jar, he said, could hold "as many as 200 trillion rotavirus … 20 billion Shigella bacteria, and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs." If you're reading this in the U.S. right now, thank your lucky bathroom lights you've got a sewage plant that will prevent all that from reaching your drinking water supply.
Apart from the guy who brought Minesweeper to the masses holding a jar of chocolate delights, the real stars of the Reinvented Toilet Expo were the 20 toilets of the future on display. And these designs really are something special, as they specifically don't need a connection to water or sewage lines. In other words, they can be used anywhere and everywhere, especially in communities that don't have that kind of infrastructure in place. Gates is a fan, placing this new category of johns among "the most significant advances in sanitation in nearly 200 years."
One of the most notable loos at the Reinvented Toilet Expo: the suitably scientifically named Nano Membrane Toilet. Here's how it works. After a person does their business, they close the lid. That sets a series of gears into motion, which "flush" waste away into a holding tank at the bottom of the toilet, but without needing any water or electricity. As the mechanism rids the toilet of waste, a thin blade scrapes the bowl clean. A spiral device elevates only the solid parts of the waste out of the holding tank, cutting it into small pellets and then feeding it into a tiny combustion chamber. That's where the poop gets burned, and all the bacteria and eggs and whatever other nasties it holds die a fiery death. The user has to clean out the ashtray once a week.
But what happens to your No. 1? It passes into a channel full of membrane bundles that treat and sanitize the urine before sending it into a holding area at the front of the toilet. Even if you can get past the eww factor, it's not drinkable, but it can be used for watering plants or crops. The Nano Membrane (made possible by a $700,000 grant from the Gates Foundation) is currently being tested in Ghana, where organizers aim to get people used to it in public restrooms. Then, over time, they hope the manufacturing cost will drop enough to allow for widespread household use. Good luck to us all.
The untold truth of Bill Gates
You'd think that we'd know every detail of the life of the richest man in the world, especially since he's been number one on the Forbes list 17 out of the last 22 years. But Bill Gates doesn't get a ton of attention. There've been two movies about Steve Jobs and a dissection of everything Apple, but the founder of Microsoft tends to keep a fairly low profile. So, get to know a little bit about the world's most famous college dropout billionaire.
Harvard was a lot harder than he thought it would be
It clearly takes brains to become a billionaire, unless your name rhymes with Fronald Frump. Bill Gates always knew he was much smarter than average Seattle youngster. So, in high school, he'd show off his smarts, undoubtedly to impress the ladies. Classes were a breeze, and when he got into Harvard, he figured he'd waltz right through the Ivy League school like a badass nerd genius.
Unbeknownst to him, Harvard was hard. It's practically in the name. He got a B in his first theoretical math class, a completely new experience. So Gates changed his major from theoretical math to applied math after his horrible defeat. But a one-time B was far from his last failure.
Before Microsoft, he had a company called Traf-O-Data that was a complete failure
Eventual co-owner of Microsoft Paul Allen met Gates in high school. One summer, when Allen was back in Seattle from college and Gates was a high school senior, they started a business. You know, just normal teenage boy shenanigans.
They created a minicomputer to track the flow of traffic. Though that sounds incredibly boring, it could be very useful to cities wanting to know where to place new traffic signals or stop signs or make road alterations or repairs. Gates came up with the name "Traf-O-Data," like it was some kind of horrible date-based candy. Gates and Allen had a working prototype two years and $1,500 later.
Unfortunately for the Data duo, nobody cared. They did no market research, so they didn't realize that getting the local government to invest money in anything is a real pain. In Newsweek, Paul Allen said, "We had virtually no customers." After six years of trying, Traf-O-Data lost $3,494 and put away their traffic files forever. Obviously, that didn't stop the pair, and they went on to create Microsoft, probably to get revenge on those who didn't appreciate their traffic ideas.
He was arrested in New Mexico
Generally, Gates doesn't seem like a guy with a long rap sheet. But looks can be deceiving.
In 1977, Gates was arrested in New Mexico, though his exact crime wasn't recorded. Could it be some kind of computer/drug smuggling scheme? No: it was a traffic violation, and they just didn't record what specific error led to his arrest. Though the details are sketchy, it definitely happened, and Albuquerque has the smiling mug shot to prove it. It's doubtful that DUI was to blame, since few drunks can look so clean cut and wholesome while the cops are documenting their crimes.
Said "no one is getting rich" making software in 1980
In 1976, Gates wrote an "Open Letter to Hobbyists," to discourage computer hobbyists from using his software without paying. The technology was so new it wasn't clearly covered under copyright law. Gates was adamant that the "share and share alike" culture of early computer fiends would discourage programmers from bothering to make new software if they knew it would only be stolen.
Gates thought the letter would be the end of it, since open letters asking people to start paying for stuff they can get for free are usually very effective. But copyright law remained cloudy. In 1979, a federal court ruled that one company selling an exact copy of another company's computer chess game was not a violation of the law. By 1980, Gates had to speak out again about unlicensed software usage. In an interview with 80 Microcomputing Magazine, the hottest of all microcomputing magazines of 1980, Gates detailed the importance of software copyright and made this incredibly unprecient statement:
"There's nobody getting rich writing software that I know of."
This was true at the time, and with the licensing issues and completely uncharted territory of the software world, Gates had no reason to think he'd wind up the richest man in the world. Still, that's a quote that probably won't end up on a lot of inspirational Facebook memes.
Gates was critical of Paul Allen's efforts when Allen was sick with cancer
Gates and Allen had a long relationship of working together. After the Traf-O-Data failure, the two pressed on, working feverishly to create software needed for the upcoming computer world. Since Gates named Traf-O-Data, Allen thought it best to take over the naming of any future endeavors, and he came up with the now legendary name "Microsoft."
Gates had a lot of respect for Allen. In fact, he dropped out of Harvard his sophomore year to join Allen in New Mexico to grow their business. But he didn't always treat him as an equal. When they debuted their first major project, the programming language BASIC, Gates spent hours double-checking all of Allen's work. Turns out, it was error-free.
Despite Allen's major contributions to Microsoft, in 1982, he overheard Gates and Steve Ballmer (who ran the business side of the company) talking about Allen's diminishing contributions, conspiring about how they could dilute his equity. But Allen wasn't just slacking off. He had cancer.
Allen called them out on their little "try to weasel money from the guy with cancer" plan and quit the company a while later. Luckily, Gates's cheapness worked to Allen's advantage. Gates wanted to buy Allen out of his stock holdings at $5 a share. Allen wanted $10, Gates said "no thank you," so Allen kept his stock. Now, he has almost $20 billion, all because of Bill Gates's cheap-o ways.
Gates dealt with many monopoly problems
As Microsoft became huge, they faced a lot of monopoly problems. Not that Gates kept putting up hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, but the United States was investigating hi, for violating antitrust laws. The government had an eye on Microsoft since 1990 and in 1994 made Microsoft sign an agreement to not use their preeminence over the software world to keep out competition. In 1997, the US struck again, filing a suit that Microsoft violated the agreement, by forcing PC makers to ship Internet Explorer with Windows 95. The courts felt they were purposely keeping out competitors. For years, the suit waged on, with Microsoft claiming it was easy to remove Internet Explorer and opposing witnesses saying it was impossible to remove. A lot of thrilling "can I delete this icon" trial footage is floating around somewhere.
Microsoft agreed that computer makers could have the choice whether or not to include Internet Explorer with Windows. But that wasn't the end. After many years, a court found that Microsoft was acting as a monopoly and ordered the company to break up to loosen its hold on the industry. But after many appeals, that judgment was overruled, and by 2002, Microsoft agreed to a settlement. That meant Microsoft could stay one company, but they had to make their software compatible with non-Windows works and couldn't enter into any new agreement that would keep competitors out of new computer technology till 2011. By 2011, Microsoft was finally completely out of the woods with all this monopoly business. And it only took 21 years.
He owns an insane house called Xanadu 2.0
Though Gates had his share of difficulties, he's been rewarded for his software genius with a net worth of $75 billion. He's not known for splashing out on crazy, expensive purchases. Unlike Paul Allen—who owns the Seattle Seahawks, has a collection of vintage war planes, and made a Rock 'n' Roll museum in Seattle that contains lots from his personal collection—Gates doesn't have any such hobbies. But, he did go all out on an insane house.
Sitting on Lake Washington, the 66,000-square-foot property is called "Xanadu 2.0." Sadly, it's not because Gates is a big Olivia Newton-John/ELO fan but is named after the fictional mansion of Charles Foster Kane. Though he doesn't seem like a gym rat, Gates built in a 2,500-foot fitness center, complete with trampoline room.
The coolest part is that Xanadu 2.0 has crazy smart home technology that none of us will have for another 40 years. Every guest who enters is given a pin. That pin interacts with sensors around the house that will adjust your surroundings based on your taste of music and lighting. Gates was already ahead of the curve with touchpad technology, since he's had a pad in every room to control the temperature since 1995. And within the walls of the mansion is the Codex Leicester, Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, which Gates bought for $30.8 million. If only we could all grow up to live out every child's dream of owning a 16th-century genius's scribbles.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation tops the Forbes most charitable list
Despite his lavish home, Bill Gates really does give a lot of his money away. Bill and Melinda Gates are number one of the Forbes list of most philanthropic people, and they have no intention of slowing down their generosity. In just one typical year, the husband-and-wife foundation gave away $2.65 billion toward fighting malaria, polio, and other diseases while donating tons to the World Health Organization. They decided to give a little $50 million bonus to the International AIDS vaccine initiative, just for fun, and also to help the world.
The Gates foundation also gives away millions in college scholarships and other educational causes. He's given nearly a billion dollars out in scholarships to minority students and recently set up a Cambridge scholarship program with a trust of $210 million. All in all, Bill and Melinda Gates have donated $30.2 billion, a third of their net worth. It's nice to see all those billions aren't just going to trampoline maintenance.
Now that he's stepped down from running Microsoft, Gates has time for the little things in life, like Reddit AMAs. His Ask Me Anything was full of absolutely crucial facts, like that Gates's favorite sandwich is a cheeseburger, he loves going to Australia for vacation, and he doesn't have a lot of parenting advice. When a father-to-be asked him for dad tips, Gates replied, "Melinda is very creative about helping me find chances to spend time with the kids. Even just driving them to school is a great time to talk to them." Cool. So, talk to your kids. And drive cars. Thanks.
Gates seemed to take the Q&A seriously and even filmed a sketch to promote it. Clearly a viewer of Saturday Night Live, Gates did a David Pumpkins sequel, as "Christmas Pumpkins." Though his dancing leaves something to be desired, it's good that Gates chose to keep the Tom Hanks voice and do some fine lip syncing work.
When he dies, he'll leave most of his money to charity
When they aren't busy talking to their dad in cars, the Gates kids must getting ready for their sick billion-dollar inheritance, right? Well, Gates doesn't think his kids should get the majority of his wealth after he's gone. His three children won't have to work at McDonald's necessarily, but they aren't going to waste away in their own Xanadu-style mansions.
"They are never going to be poorly off," Gates explained. "Our kids will receive a great education and some money … but they'll go out and have their own career. It's not a favor to kids to have them have huge sums of wealth. It distorts anything they might do, creating their own path." Gates has it that each child will get $10 million.
Luckily, his kids agree with his thrifty inheritance plan and are happy that the money will go to help those in much greater need. Though his children may not be able to have a house with 24 bathrooms, somehow, they'll get by.