How to Use Toilet Paper

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Certain aspects of human life are simultaneously private and universal -- everyone experiences the same stuff privately and almost no one talks about it. Pretty much everything that happens in the bathroom falls into this category, which is why I was amazed to discover that serious thought has gone into the challenges presented by toilet paper. Here are a few examples.

The Toilet Paper Algorithm

Design guru Don Norman decided to confront a common toilet paper crisis: the problem of the roll running out just when you need it most. When remodeling his home, Norman installed a dual-roll toilet paper dispenser, under the theory that there'd always be a second roll available for just such emergencies. But he quickly found that, for some reason, both rolls seemed to run out at the same time!

Norman applied some logical thinking to his problem, resulting in the article Toilet Paper Algorithms: I didn't know you had to be a computer scientist to use toilet paper. The gist of it is that Norman and his wife were subconsciously selecting whatever roll was larger at any given time, leading them both to become roughly the same size, thus running out at the same time. (Read the article for more details on the various available toilet paper algorithms...it's neat.)

For the record, Norman determined that the optimal strategy for using toilet paper in a dual-roll holder is to always use the smaller roll. This will tend to drive one roll to become empty, but will leave a full roll available.

Norman isn't alone in his analysis of toilet paper roll consumption -- Donald E. Knuth published a mathematics paper entitled The Toilet Paper Problem in The American Mathematical Monthly in 1984, including equations for analysis of toilet paper usage.

The Fold Versus Crumple Debate

I'll try to put this as delicately as I can. Apparently there's a significant debate about whether it's better to fold several sheets of paper, or crumple them together in a bunch. One major argument in favor of the "fold" method is that depending on the quality of your paper and your folding technique, you can refold (and thus reuse) a single set of sheets. The counter-argument is that this is super-gross. I have my own opinions on this issue, but let's just say I've tried multiple methodologies over the years and feel that I've perfected my technique.

So what's the distribution of crumplers versus folders in the wild? An online toilet paper usage survey has received almost 5,000 responses. At the moment, the folders are slightly in the lead (52%), but tend to be a little older than crumplers. Also, far more crumplers are male than female (70% of crumplers in the survey are male). You can take the survey or just hit the 'View' button to see the results without contributing your own.

Toilet Paper Requisition Denied

Here's some fun WWII trivia. Lieutenant Commander J. W. Coe of the submarine USS Skipjack requested 150 rolls of toilet paper from the supply officer at Mare Island Naval Base in July of 1941. The request was denied in November of 1941 with a notation saying, "Cancelled -- cannot identify." By June 1942 the situation onboard USS Skipjack was dire, and Coe sent another request, reading in part:

During the 11-3/4 months elapsing from the time of ordering the toilet paper and the present date, USS SKIPJACK personnel, despite their best efforts to await delivery of the subject material, have been unable to wait on numerous occasions, and the situation is now quite acute, particularly during depth-charge attacks by the "back stabbers."

...

SKIPJACK personnel during this period have become accustomed to the use of "crests," i.e., the vast amount of incoming non-essential paper work, and in so doing feel that the wish of the Bureau of Ships for reduction of paper work is being complied with, thus killing two birds with one stone.

Read the rest at the wonderful Snopes page detailing the event.

Got any toilet paper trivia, or an opinion on fold-versus-crumple? Share it with us in the comments!

(Toilet paper photo courtesy of Brandon Blinkenberg and Wikimedia Commons.)

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March 21, 2008 - 11:28am
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