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Midori via Amazon

5 Swoon-Worthy Office Supplies to Up Your Writing Game

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Midori via Amazon

It's high time you upgraded your office supplies. Whether you're taking notes, pursuing your creative passion, or jotting down to-do lists, a nice set of writing tools can go a long way toward keeping you inspired. Here are five purchases that can improve your desk time immediately:

1. A BEAUTIFUL NOTEBOOK

Comp

 
Those black-and-white marbled composition notebooks are classics, but the flimsy 50-cent cardboard booklets you scribbled your history notes in likely don't cut it anymore. Aron Fay of the acclaimed design firm Pentagram has redesigned “an elegant, sophisticated, and long-lasting version of the classic composition notebook” called comp.

“With all the new advances in the fields of papermaking, printing, and binding since [the origin of the composition book in] the 1800s, I was interested in what it would be like to create a notebook that uses the new printing and binding technologies and the highest quality materials possible, while still maintaining the nostalgic pattern that we all know and love,” he writes in his crowdfunding call on Kickstarter.

The notebook opens to lie completely flat, unlike your run-of-the-mill composition book, and is made with a cloth binding and high-quality, poster-thickness paper that comes either lined or unlined. It’s $19 and should ship sometime in April 2017. (And if you’re a notebook nerd, the Kickstarter page is worth checking out purely for the history of the composition book it provides.)

2. A SMARTPEN

Moleskine

 
You no longer need to choose between the benefits and portability of writing by hand and the convenience of having a digital, typed copy of your notes. A smartpen allows you to write in a notebook, but send a digital version to an app like Evernote, your phone, or your email. Moleskine’s Smart Writing Set transfers your notes to its mobile app in real-time, and depending on how legible your writing is, it will convert your handwriting to text. You can adjust colors and line thickness in the app, too, and if you aren’t near your phone, the pen has enough memory to store your notes and upload them when you connect later.

The Moleskine set looks elegant and has some neat functionality, but at $200, it is pricier than other smartpens. Other slightly less expensive options that get the job done (albeit without the real-time app upload) include the $169 Neo, whose technology powers Moleskine’s pen, or one of Livescribe’s pens, which start at $129 and are known for their excellent ability to record audio and sync it with your notes.

3. A GREAT, NOT-SO-SMART PEN

Jetstream RT courtesy Uni-ball

 
OK, so maybe you’re not going to use your $200 smartpen for everything. Sometimes you just need a utilitarian, affordable, non-smudgy, never-runs-out-of-battery pen that you can buy in bulk and lose constantly. The exceedingly thorough reviewers at The Wirecutter recommend the Uni-ball Jetstream for its smooth writing ability and quick-dry ink. It’s $9 for a pack of three on Amazon and comes in either fine or bold point.

For a slightly fancier-feeling writing experience, New York magazine’s The Strategist is gaga for the Japanese-made Midori Brass Ballpoint (pictured at top), a light, collapsible pen that only measures a few inches long in its compressed state. It retails for $17.

4. AMAZING PAPER CLIPS

Jorge Clip courtesy Rad and Hungry

 
If you have a penchant for writing on loose-leaf, class up your scattered papers with a really nice paper clip. Like, really nice. Rad and Hungry’s Jorge Clip, a brass design the company sources from a Brazilian artisan, is pretty enough to use as home decor. It's big enough to use as a key ring, a bookmark, or to hold together the beginning chapters of that novel you’re working on. It’s $20.

5. STORAGE SO PRETTY YOU’LL WANT TO STAY ORGANIZED

Niu Desk Set courtesy Rad and Hungry


 
It can be hard to get down to work when your desk is littered with office supplies and papers you’re not ready to file away just yet. If there’s anything that can get you amped about organizing your thumb tacks and staples, it’s the $16 Niu Desk Set, also made by Rad and Hungry. The cork-and-aluminum tray comes loaded with puzzle-piece storage blocks that give you a dedicated place to put your pens, Post-its, tape dispenser, and more.

There’s also a more whimsical, less rigidly segmented option in Poppin’s colorful trays for papers and for odds and ends. They come in a wide spectrum of hues, shapes, and sizes and cost between $5 and $24.

And if even that seems too pricey for your stray office supplies, Muji’s translucent storage boxes look elegant enough that no one will guess they only cost $1.50.

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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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