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Attention to Detail With David Rees

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In his new show, Going Deep, artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees explores how to tie shoes, flip coins, dig holes, and perform other quotidian tasks with care and sophistication. Here are his tips for staying sharp.

I just stumble into stuff. I started sharpening pencils because I got a job with the U.S. Census (pencils were used for completing forms), and I wondered, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do this for a living?” That was a challenge for myself: Could I get paid to do this?

I like the idea of taking something you do every day without thinking and saying, “Stop, slow down, pay attention.” It opens up the world to you through this particular lens.

I’m up to my 2,000th sharpened pencil. At this point, my price is $40 a pencil. If someone’s gonna pay that I’d be a fool not to do it.

When I’m sharpening, I think about how it’s going. I’m paying attention to the pencil to see if it’s gonna split. Sometimes I zone out, but usually I’m thinking about the craft. If I sharpen a pencil, bag the shavings, refine the point, fill out the paperwork, and ship it. I can usually do four an hour.

There’s this guy known as Professor Shoelace in Australia. He has a different way of tying a shoe. You make both bends first, and you pass them through each other at the same time. It’s crazy—it looks fake. It’s three times faster than the old way.

The biggest influence was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. That’s my favorite TV show ever. We wanted to make a show that had that spirit of curiosity and adventure but for a slightly older audience. As a kid, it blew my mind when Mr. Rogers went into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and was like, “It’s a set,” and explained how they made the show. He took you seriously as a viewer. He respected your imagination and the fact that we’re dealing with reality, even if the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is a set.

The things I’ve had the most success with are things I started doing for myself. Cartooning—I didn’t think anyone else would be interested in that besides me and my friends. Then I was a cartoonist for seven years. When I try to make things I think others will give me money for, it’s never as much fun, and I think that lack of fun shows in the work. People respond to sincerity and enthusiasm.

Don’t quit your day job. I mean, keep the structure and income and light social interactions that characterize office work. I started cartooning when I had a
day job. Then I quit and had nothing to react against.

Goof off. Sometimes you have to do stuff for fun, without worrying. If you’re making money being “creative,” sometimes it’s unclear if you’re doing something for fun, for money, or for fun but also for money.

I love jumping off rope swings—that’s probably my favorite thing in the world.

'Going Deep' premiers July 14 at 10pm EST on the National Geographic Channel

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.