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Innovations in Toilet Paper

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Most local stores have a selection of toilet paper ranging from cheap white paper to expensive white paper. That's it. When I was a child, you could get toilet paper in pastel pink or blue, but those died out when designers decided bathrooms can be other colors. There was also the discovery that dyes can cause allergic reactions in some people (not a pleasant thought). So white it is. But only at the local supermarket. With the power of the internet, you can break free from the tyranny of plain toilet paper!

Colors

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Renova sells toilet paper in six standout colors, including black. Buy a single color, or mix several in a gift pack. Paper towels, tissues, and handkerchiefs are available in the same colors. Order online from Portugal or find Renova products in many stores in Europe.

Bathroom Reading

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Just Toilet Paper has an extensive collection of specialty paper in lovely patterns, as well as several styles of bathroom reading material. You can get rolls with bathroom information or jokes, Beavis and Butthead humor, or Monty Python Skits (recommended by the man with three buttocks).

Comics

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This paper combines your TP dispenser with your bathroom magazine rack. Read a comic strip as you unwind the roll! But ...only if you can read Japanese. I can see how this might cause problems in a shared bathroom. In the late 70s, Marvel comics got into the toilet paper business, printing an edition of a Spiderman/Hulk comic onto a roll of toilet paper. They should try that again today.

Sudoku

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If you're going to be in there a while, toilet paper with sudoku puzzles will help pass the time. It's things like this that led to the rise in homes with multiple bathrooms.

Mind Trainers

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This should be a mental_floss gift shop item: toilet paper with various brain teaser puzzles. It's called the Mind Trainer Loo Roll. Yes, there's math involved.

Potty Trainers

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Cottonelle for Kids is specially designed for toddlers in potty training. Most squares are printed with little puppy paws, but every fifth sheet has a sweet little puppy, to show you where to tear. This way, a child who can neither count nor judge amounts can know how much toilet paper to use.

Recycled

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Recycled toilet paper does not mean what it sounds like. It wasn't toilet paper previously; it's toilet paper now -made of recycled paper. Seventh Generation produces rolls made of 100% recycled paper, with a minimum of 80% post-consumer content. It's white, but not bleached. Available from Treecycle.

Revenge

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It's a little late to order for April Fools Day this year, but pranks are better when no one suspects one. Revenge toilet paper will not tear. Ever. You might not be forgiven for this one.

Politicians

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Who do you think deserves to serve as your toilet paper? You've got your choice, as more and more politicians find their way onto their own rolls.

Novelties

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You can buy many different styles of novelty toilet paper including pictures of barbwire, money, measuring tape, holiday greetings, and (my favorite) crime scene tape.

Design Your Own

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Don't see any designs that tickle your fancy? There are several companies that will custom print anything you want on a roll (or a thousand) of toilet paper. Feature your company's logo, or your competitor, or your innovative idea. There are many ways to brighten up the bathroom and put a smile on your visitors' faces!

Further reading: Toilet Paper Dispensers

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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