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Why are residential toilet seats always round, and public toilet seats always "U" shaped? Who started this practice? --R.G., Jacksonville, Florida

Three times readers have sent me this question in the space of four months. You people really have to start getting out of the house. Public toilets are designed the way they are for the obvious reason: men are pigs. In particular, they splash, and when they're out of the house and away from the restraining influence of their families, they splash even more--and they don't wipe up. The relevant male apparatus being in the front, this makes the front of the toilet seat pretty gross--or rather, it would make it gross, if toilet-seat makers hadn't been shrewd enough to head the problem off at the pass.

Who the unsung genius was who started this practice we may never know, but it's now embodied in industry standards. Cecil was chatting with Shabbir Rawalpindiwala, chairman of the toilet-seat committee for the American National Standards Institute, and he told me that after months of solemn deliberation, he and his fellow intellectuals had definitively set the design of public (and private) toilet seats for all time, ensuring that our grandchildren will have U-shaped public potty seats too. (Actually, Shabbir heads the Committee on Synthetic Organic Materials in Plumbing Fixtures, but it'll always be the toilet-seat committee to me.) One small step for a man, another giant leap for mankind.

Why don't auto headlights go off when you turn off the ignition? Is it a conspiracy to sell more car batteries? I can't think of a reason the headlights need to be switched independently of the ignition except possibly when you lose your keys at night in front of your car. --Curious in Marin County, California

Time for another adventure in industrial anthropology, which consists of getting the natives to ask themselves, Why do we do this, anyway? Being a little vague on headlight theory (I was asleep when they covered this in omniscients' school), I called up the car companies. Results: total double-talk.

The Ford guy pinned it on "cost and complexity"--as though making the headlights go off the same way the windshield wipers do would be a spectacular feat of technology. The GM lady helpfully noted that on pricey models you can get a high-tech option called a "twilight sentinel," which turns the headlights on and off automatically with the engine, depending on how dark it is out. A typically American example of a pile-driver solution for a thumbtack problem, and certainly not an answer to the question. The GM lady then threw up a smoke screen: you want your emergency blinkers to operate independently of the ignition so you won't have to leave the key in the car when you go for help. No doubt, ma'am, but I wasn't asking about the emergency blinkers. Well, she said, sometimes you want the dome light on without having the key in, don't you? Uh-huh. Obviously we were getting nowhere.

The Ford guy, meanwhile, had come up with what I suspected was the real answer: we've always done it that way, and nobody ever complains. Jeez, I think to myself, don't you guys ever respond to the inner muse? Where is our pride in getting the job done right, regardless of the madding crowd? But you can't expect these guys to understand poetry.

I called up Consumers Union. Surely, I said to myself, these flinty-eyed watchdogs will cut through the BS. Ha. I learned the following: in some foreign makes, the ignition does shut off the lights, and anyway there are times when you want to be able to operate the radio or beep the horn with the ignition off. Cecil, of course, had not asked about the radio or the horn and did not care what foreign manufacturers did.

Finally the GM lady called back. She had been asking around, and the consensus was as follows: (1) it's a security measure--I mean, come on, we can all dream up some off-the-wall scenario in which you'd want to be able to turn the lights on with the ignition off; and (2) customers expect it to be that way, they're not complaining, so why rock the boat? Seems pretty damn silly to me, but if so, the fault, dear Curious, is in ourselves, that we sit still for it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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