Six Basic Machines of Classical Antiquity

By looking at the pictures, can you identify the basic machine principle at work? What is the missing sixth machine principle? (Hint: beer bottle opener) And finally, where do you see these principles at work all around you?

Basic Machine 1
Basic Machine 2
Basic Machine 3
Basic Machine 4
Basic Machine 5

The Power of Pattern-Seeking

Orion's Belt
Greeks map out the story of the Orion constellation.

We are naturally pattern-seeking creatures. When the ancient Greeks looked up at the stars, they invented a whole series of rich stories and mythologies to go with the constellations. These stories and patterns may on one hand seem arbitrary to us, but on the other hand it was an early way of remembering where the stars were positioned in a time when navigation by the stars were critical.

We have since found far more powerful uses of patterns. Some of you may know the story of how one man discovered the cause of cholera outbreaks in London. Before anyone knew about germs, these outbreaks were thought to be caused by bad smells.

Dr. John Snow thought otherwise. He investigated the outbreaks by mapping the location deaths with a black bar on a street map.

Dr. John Snow tracks cholera outbreaks on a map of London.
Dr. John Snow tracks cholera outbreaks on a map of London.

He discovered that cholera would kill people on one side of a street but not the other, or that one person would die blocks away from a cluster. How then could this be caused by bad smells?

Then by interviewing every family, he was able to find the commonality that each person drank from the same water pump. To test his theory, he took the handle off the water pump and the outbreak stopped.

What is important is not the map, but how he was able to identify the patterns and create a solution by creating the map.

Finding patterns and testing them allows us to understand the underlying cause, which often cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Much of human behaviour is that way. You can watch a chess player move a piece or a boxer throw a punch. You can even mimic the movement, but you will not have a clue why they do so or what they will do next. We can see the action, but not the thought behind the action.

Whether you are trying to understand how to be creative, innovative, or successful discover the principles behind the event, the pattern behind the isolated data points.

Science – The first open-source system?

What is science? Most people will associate it with test tubes and experiments and miraculous inventions, but this only points to the unfortunate way we teach science. We neglect to learn the most valuable contribution of science which is the process of science. Ken Low from Action Studies defines science as disciplined knowledge creation. This systematic approach to understanding the world is an outgrowth of the explosion that was the industrial revolution.

What is even more interesting about science is that it is also a form of collective disciplined knowledge creation. New discoveries are shared in journals so that others can challenge it or build on it. Scientists and engineers can then find ways of applying this body of knowledge to new or old problems.

While admittedly human beings have always had a form of open collaborative in the marketplace or in philosophical and political debates, using empirical standards mixed with peer review in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the world is new.

This wasn’t always the case. In the Roman times, many engineers and inventors took their inventions with them to the grave. Without a trusted community of explorers, individuals could not easily learn from other people’s failures. Today, a biologist can spend his whole life discovering the function of a specific hormone which can then contribute to future discoveries.

This is not to say that scientists are altruistic knowledge seekers. There is prestige and fame that comes with being the first to publish in a journal. There is a kind of collaborative competition. This may seem paradoxical until one realizes that the latin root of competition means “to strive together”. Competition is a form of collaboration.

The processes behind science are tremendously powerful. Let’s put it to good use.

How my bathroom products came to be…

As I was brushing my teeth, I noticed the dizzying array of products lining the bathtub. I wondered, what more does one need than a bar of soap and shampoo? And theoretically you only need the shampoo since it acts as a reasonably effective body wash. Nevertheless, I am told that there can never be enough shelf space around the shower.

This got me thinking about how we decided that these products were important in our lives to begin with. Why do we use them? How did we come to know that? And what might that tell us about how we come to know anything?
Continue reading “How my bathroom products came to be…”

How DEEP is your Creative Space?

There are many fleeting moments of fulfillment… an intimate connection with another human being, a beautifully played soccer game, a breathtaking view at the end of a hike. Creating something, however, is a kind of fulfillment that lasts many moments more. Sometimes it lasts just long enough to be eaten and other times it lasts well past future generations.

Part 1 was about opening up a play space for your imagination. Part 2 is about the often neglected part of creativity… deepening your creative space. Strangely enough, the process of replacing my toilet has provided me with some startling insights.

Before you recoil in horror at the thought of toilets, many a great ideas have been had on the seat of inspiration! There is more to this story though. If you indulge me, it is every bit relevant to deepening your creative space.

Admiring the Mystery

When I first looked at my toilet, I was overcome by a sense of dread. It’s dirty. It’s heavy. And let’s face it, every first-time replacement takes longer than planned.

Upon attaining a pre-repair zen-like state (please join me in taking a deep breath…), the toilet attains a certain mystique. For instance,

How is it one button can cause the whole thing to flush?
Why does the water in the bowl actually get sucked out (along with its contents)?
How could a low-flush toilet work better than a high-flush toilet?

Isn’t it incredible in this digital age (where most things require electricity or gas) that we have in our homes a device which operates time and time again without it?

Except for when it doesn’t and then it’s even more of a mystery.

It is a mystery and here’s the thing… I could stare at this toilet for the rest of my life and I will be no closer to figuring out how to replace it.

I have to take off the cover!

Similarly, it’s easy to admire a beautiful sculpture and wonder in amazement at its beauty. But underneath the wonder is a richer place of mysteries where the source of creation thrives. Underneath is a story of struggle and success, despair and discipline. Unless you’re ready to take the cover off, you will fail to find your creative spirit.

Looking Beneath the Surface

When the cover is off, you get to see a simple machine in action. The handle opens up the flush valve to let the water flow into the bowl. After it has flushed, the tank refills itself ready for the next flush.

Watch it one day. Really… try it if you haven’t already.

Isn’t it strange and wondrous?

Why does the valve open with one press, but close only after it has all flushed? How does it know how much water to put into the tank? What happens if the water keeps on filling?

With a little curiosity and experimentation, you’ll have no difficulty in figuring out how it works.

As a bonus, once you do know how it works, you’ll find that it is no trouble at all to understand how to fix a leaking tank or a broken handle.

In a day where we want it fixed now and we want it given to us now, it is hard to take an hour or two to understand.

Creativity can be like that too. Sometimes you know something is not quite right. A note is wrong, the taste is off, the idea doesn’t work… sometimes all it takes is the patience to stop and reflect and understand.

Going Down the Toilet Hole

I turned off the water, flushed the toilet to drain the tank, siphoned away the remaining water, detached the water hose, and unscrewed the washers that held the tank in place. With the tank removed, I was left with the bowl part of the toilet.

Did you know that you can still flush the toilet without the tank?

For the experienced home owners, you may already know that pouring a large bucket of water into the bowl will cause the toilet to flush.

Haven’t tried it? Go ahead and try it for fun. I did….

Why does it do that?

Now for some of you, the question might be “why care?” Which is a legitimate question. You may have no reason to know. But let’s say that you wanted to build a better toilet, or let’s say that you wanted to know how rich and complex a creation is… then you’d have to know.

The magic really is in the bowl. A cross-section reveals a simple arrangement that belies the complex physics involved. Somehow, this structure is capable of sucking out the contents of the bowl. How?

Unlike the water tank, it isn’t obvious at first glance how it works.

The key is understanding how a siphon works which dates back to 1500 BCE when the Egyptians used it to empty jars. When you put enough water into the bowl, the siphon will fill and literally pull the water out of the bowl.

When air escapes into the siphon, it stops pulling water out of the bowl causing that gurgling sound.

Put the tank and the bowl together and you get the basics of how a toilet works. The tank of water essentially acts like the bucket of water which causes the bowl to flush.

* * *

Understanding Siphons
Remember grade school science? If you put a tube filled with water into a tank of water, the water will drain out the other end without any additional help as long as the one end is placed lower than the other end.

To understand the physics behind the siphon, see

* * *

The average society plays to the myth that creativity spontaneously springs out of thin air… companies make sudden breakthroughs, scientists cry “Eureka!”, the public discovers the next celebrity artist. While luck and circumstances certainly play a big part, not enough credit goes to the effort that these people or organizations spent to develop their expertise.

The Wright Brothers spent eight years in the workshop testing different wing configurations, building different motors, and practicing flight controls. When they finally revealed their invention, a few kids were watching and the news barely acknowledged it.

Drawing from the Best

I removed the bowl with a great heave and at last I was in view of the pipe (rough-in) that takes everything to the sewer. I replaced the wax ring with a new one. And now I prepared my new top-of-the-line low-flush toilet. My parent’s have a similar model and I remember watching amazed at how powerfully it flushed with only six litres of water (as opposed to my fifteen litres).

If you had to design a toilet that flushes better with less water, how would you do it?

If you have been following how the toilet works, you can probably come up with some reasonably good ideas.

Before you get too excited though, consider what resources you would need to implement it. Below is a diagram of the improved toilet from the maker of a top-of-the-line low-flush toilet.

Now imagine what it took to design this toilet.

  • A better siphon – computer simulations were used to determine the most efficient shape. Imagine what the author of those simulations had to know to create the simulations.
  • A better bowl – the glaze acts like a non-stick coating to keep the water flowing.
  • A better tank – a wider valve allows the water to flow faster.

Neat eh?

If it isn’t clear already, the depth of your space is greatly enhanced by the technology available to you through other creatives.

The modest toilet owes its lineage to the ancient Egyptians, the Romans and many people since then (see the box below). Creation then is not one person’s discovery, but one person that builds on the people before them.

* * *

History of the Toilet
Believe it or not, it was only a hundred and fifty years ago that people emptied their chamber pots outside the window. The toilet (and the sewer system) makes city living possible. For a fascinating history see

* * *

To the Sewers and the Beyond

As I was looking at the rough-in I imagined following that pipe down to the sewers which spiders out across the city and at some point returns to a sewage waste treatment plant. What an incredible system!

I unpacked my new low-flush toilet, read the instructions, and decided to check the measurements. My toilet required a standard distance of 12” from the rough-in to the wall. I measured mine… it was a baffling 11”.

I looked on in despair trying to will it to fit, but unless I wanted to move the rough-in or the wall, it wasn’t going to happen. Sadly, I had no choice but to put everything back.

There are always setbacks when you decide to delve deep into your creative space. It takes practice and discipline to develop the skills, knowledge, and experience to create. Ten years is about the time it takes to become “expert”.

While this seems daunting, it reveals the key behind creativity. Joy must be taken in the journey of going deeper and deeper. If it is important enough to you, then you’ll be ready to start now, play now, dig now, and nothing can stop you.

I put the old toilet back, returned the new toilet, so I could order a new 10” toilet.

Once I got over the disappointment, I realized with a little glee that I had plumbed the mysteries of the toilet and that has a reward all of its own.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.