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National Geographic Channel

WATCH THIS: Going Deep With David Rees

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National Geographic Channel

A new TV series debuts tonight on the National Geographic Channel. And it's totally bananas. Going Deep With David Rees reveals the hidden complexity of topics you thought were simple, like "How to Make an Ice Cube" (the premiere episode), or "How to Tie Your Shoes" (also airing tonight). The joy of the show comes from Rees's ability to embrace the silliness of spending a half hour of TV on ice-cube-making while actually teaching you how to make really great ice cubes. I implore you to check this out. This is the kind of TV we need.

Recommended for: fans of deadpan humor and/or people who think explainer TV shows have gotten out of hand.

When it airs: Monday nights at 10pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel, starting Monday, July 14, 2014. Each Monday you get a Rock Block of two half-hour episodes.

Here's a trailer, though other videos below may give you a better sense of the show's tone:

Just Look at This

In the third episode of the series, host David Rees goes deep on
"How to Dig a Hole." He consults miners in his quest to dig the hole of his dreams (mild spoiler: it's a party hole), but it turns out that digging a party hole is extremely difficult when you pick a spot right above a layer of shale. Here's a brief promo video from mid-dig:

"It's so much work making this much emptiness," Rees says, laughing, sitting in his unfinished party hole. That really is deep. It's also a dumb joke, and that's the beauty of this show. The show comments on this tension when Rees visits a Buddhist monk to explore the impermanence of sand mandalas, and meditate on the impermanence of ice cubes. Rees gets to play the dumb host when he "gets schooled" by the monk, but he's also presumably the guy whose idea it was to go talk to monks for his cable TV show. It's not every day that we get such a smart injection of practical Buddhist wisdom in the middle of an explainer show.

Also, here's an important outtake from the "How to Shake Hands" episode. Note that Rees plays at least three characters here: Fake David Rees (at the beginning), Cable TV Host (at 0:23), and a glimpse of Real David Rees right at 0:39 when he breaks. I mean, COME ON:

This show requires viewers to confront ambiguity. This is a pretty minor challenge in the larger scheme of things, but judging from fan reaction to Rees's previous work (he's the artisanal pencil-sharpener), sometimes this really bugs people. A common reaction to Rees's recent work is for someone to ask, "Is this a joke?" That is the wrong question. The right question is simply: "Do you enjoy this?"

Layering the Joke

Let's go deep on Going Deep for a moment. Here is a genuinely educational show on a channel that carries educational programming—okay, so it's an educational applied-science show. However, the show is presented by a (very deadpan) comedian, and the premise of each episode is totally absurd—okay, so I guess it's comedy. Add to that a healthy layer of parody of the "educational TV" genre itself (and a very refreshing parody of the everyman host character), and you're left with a crazy layer cake of meaning, in which the show parodies itself as it's happening, but also has actual educational stuff that pokes through. For me, this is hilarious and beautiful. For others, it's just confusing. This is a true "love it or hate it" show. I love it.

Here's another outtake, from an episode I haven't seen yet. The fact that this is happening while a slow loris is just kinda hanging around...well, again, I think you simply need to experience this, and see whether you'd like to watch a half hour of it:

Now Watch This

The show premieres tonight, Monday, July 14, 2014 at 10pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. There are two episodes each airdate, each running a half hour. Go have a look (or check out the show online) and come back to thank or yell at me.

Previous coverage of Rees: Attention to Detail With David Rees; How to Sharpen Pencils; How to Sharpen Pencils (With a Wu-Tang Shirt); and The Late Movies: Codefellas.

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.