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Courtesy Kongsfjord International Scuba School

How To Enjoy The Cold: Advice From An Arctic SCUBA Diver

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Courtesy Kongsfjord International Scuba School

For much of North America, this winter has felt never-ending and particularly cruel. The Paper Of Record has compared it to "hell," and while their frustration is understandable, a river of fire seems like it'd be pretty nice right about now. Even though it's late February, much of the Midwest and East Coast will have to endure a few more weeks of this frigid reality. So, rather than booking the next flight to Cancun (fares aren't great, I checked), I sought the advice of someone who is professionally good at handling the cold. I called Christoph Hupe, an arctic SCUBA diver at the world's northernmost dive center.

Norway's Kongsfjord International SCUBA School is located at N 70° 43' 13.908". For the coordinately unengaged, here is a map for reference:

See that tropical-looking green area far to the south? That's northern Sweden and Finland.

When I spoke with Christoph, Kongsfjord was having a "mild" day. (Online weather services for the town reported a temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit). Christoph tells me the coast is kept warmer by the Gulf Stream, although the price you pay for these milder temperatures is the routine presence of winds that can reach "up to 200 miles per hour." He was upbeat but anxious—he had been stuck inside doing paperwork all day and wanted to go enjoy the weather.

Christoph works year-round taking divers into the Arctic Ocean for both commercial and research purposes and for recreational tours. The underwater environment is full of the biodiversity and brilliant color you'd expect to see in the Caribbean, not in water between Alta and the North Pole. Of course, you can't exactly enjoy a Mai Tai on the beach after touring Kongsfjord's depths.

According to Christoph, "The water can chill down here to about -1.8 degrees Celsius." As I checked Google to find that this converts to about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, he chimes in, "I know, that doesn't sound so bad." (I assure him that yes, it does indeed sound very bad.) "Water transports heat 25 times faster than air," he says, "when you multiply [that water temperature] by 25, then you get to somewhere between -40 and -50 degrees in equivalent air temperature."

Christoph wears a neoprene drysuit while diving in the winter. "The neoprene always holds a little bit of water," he tells me, "so I have found that when it's really cold and I come out of the sea, I stand a minute or two in the air and the entire suit starts crackling. That's always a bit of fun!"

The equipment is key, and being unprepared can be deadly. "Something can happen quick—you can have free flows in your regulator. If you have plastic fins, they can turn brittle." He knows divers who filmed in Antarctica for the BBC's Blue Planet specials, and they told him about their mistake of bringing plastic fins. He laughs, recalling that, when he watched the program, he saw their fins "brittling away...Soon they'd have just the boot on, no fin!" (Christoph uses rubber fins that "really do the trick...they have never let me down, even in the coldest conditions and when it's getting rough and tough.")

While diving in the Arctic is cold, your body ignores that fact pretty soon. "My experience is that it's not so bad. You go into the water and you get really cold and you get all these needles and pins, and it hurts for a couple seconds, but then it's numb and then it's fine!" For commercial dives, Christoph can be in the water for up to three hours at a time. "If you were just sport diving, bobbing in the water and sightseeing, you would last 20 minutes, half an hour, and then you would start getting cold and thinking of coming up and getting back out of the water. Whereas when you are working under the water, it is very different. You are active. You are moving, lifting heavy things—this keeps the blood circulating and makes you last much longer underwater."

I ask if he enjoys the cold. Christoph, who has been chipper and laughing throughout the call, pauses to think, and his tone approaches something akin to somberness for the first time. "Well," he sighs, "sometimes I wonder why I do this. Because of course I'm getting cold, and you know what it's like when you get cold: you get all the needles and pins and blah blah blah blah blah, and you wonder why on earth you are doing this." After cycling through that process mentally, he turns upbeat again, almost becoming spiritually numb to the pain. "On the other side," he says, "I keep telling myself this is a marvelous environment. It's not many people who have the chance to experience what I am allowed to experience. On the principle, I enjoy every second of it."

I soon find myself complaining about this particularly brutal winter to Christoph, and then add that everyone in America is also complaining, lest I come off as a wimp. I also mention that I am from Chicago, hoping to score some points from my cold weather brother. Still, I ask him for advice. The key, he says, is in his mindset—and it's not a case of mind over matter. "It's not important that you don't concentrate on the fact that you are cold," he says. "Don't try to ignore the thought, I am cold or Jaaaa, this is really cold. Take it as, OK, it's cold outside, I've dressed myself, now I go for a walk, or go to work, or whatever it is."

Embracing the cold is quite different from enjoying it, but, as humans with nervous systems that like to keep us informed about whether or not we're in the midst of freezing to death, sometimes there's only one thing you can do.

"When you're coming out of the living room, and you have been sitting there, watching TV, and you go out and you have to walk your dog, and it's really really cold outside, you usually say, 'Argh, that's miserable. That's grim,'" he says. "OK. Fine. On the other side, what I do is say, 'OK! It's cold outside. That's natural out here. I should dress warmly, and I take my dog, and I enjoy myself!' Me and my dog, we have a snowball chase, we roll around in the snow, we'll jump head-first in some snow drifts or whatever. It's the mindset!"

Christoph's dog, showing the proper mindset. Via Kongsfjord International Scuba School's Facebook

When people he takes on dives express worry about the freezing temperatures, Christoph asks them if they go skiing or ice skating, or have any other winter hobbies. He then tells them, "OK, what do you do when you go skiing? You're not skiing dressed in your swimsuit. You are dressed accordingly and have the according mindset. And then it becomes enjoyable! You just need to look at your own personal approach and your dress code to overcome the cold. And once it's overcome, you can start to see the beauty."

Even though Midtown Manhattan may lack Kamchatka Crabs or wolffish or the beautiful aquatic biodiversity of Kongsfjord, Christoph's enthusiasm and appreciation for the freezing world around him are contagious. By the time we are finishing our call, I yearn to take a walk outside, cold be damned. Christoph, on the other hand, is frustrated. "I can't stand this paperwork, I want to get out!" he cries. The cold and his dog will have to wait.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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
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fun
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.

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