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4 Benefits of Writing By Hand for National Handwriting Day

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By Chris Gayomali

Today is National Handwriting Day! Although we don't write like we used to, here are four ways handwriting is still helpful.

1. It's better for learning

One of the most effective ways to study and retain new information is to rewrite your notes by hand. That's because putting ink to paper stimulates a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System, or the RAS. According to Lifehacker, "The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process, giving more importance to the stuff that you're actively focusing on that moment — something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront." One study from 2010 found that the brain areas associated with learning "lit up" much more when kids were asked to write words like "spaceship" by hand versus just studying the word closely. 

2. It makes you a better writer

Many famous authors opt for the meticulousness of writing by hand over the utility of a typewriter or computer. In a 1995 interview with the Paris Review, writer Susan Sontag said that she penned her first drafts the analog way before typing them up for editing later. "I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers," she said. "I like the slowness of writing by hand." Novelist Truman Capote insisted on a similar process, although his involved lying down with a coffee and cigarette nearby. "No, I don't use a typewriter," he said in an interview. "Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand." A 2009 study from the University of Washington seems to support Sontag, Capote, and many other writers' preference for writing by hand: Elementary school students who wrote essays with a pen not only wrote more than their keyboard-tapping peers, but they also wrote faster and in more complete sentences.  

3. It will prevent you from being distracted

The computer in front of you is a time-sucking portal to puppy videos and ex-boyfriend/girlfriend stalking. That's why self-imposed lockout programs like Facebook Limiter and Minutes Please exist in the first place. Of course, the internet isn't all bad. In 2012, neuroscientists even suggested that taking five-minute breaks to browse Tumblr or BuzzFeed could make you a more productive worker. On the other hand, when you're all GIF'd-out and it's time to work on that dissertation, there's something to be said for the elegant simplicity of having only a pen and paper in front of you... especially since that paper probably isn't plugged into the distraction-laden internet. Try writing with laser-like focus for short 20-minute stretches at a time.

4. It keeps your brain sharp as you get older

Writing longhand is a workout. No, not necessarily for your wrist, but for your brain. According to The Wall Street Journal, some physicians claim that the act of writing — which engages your motor-skills, memory, and more — is good cognitive exercise for baby boomers who want to keep their minds sharp as they age. And if you're looking to pick up a new skill, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that adults had an easier time recognizing new characters — like Chinese, math symbols, or music notes — that were written by hand over characters generated by a computer.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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