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Inbox Zero: Inbox Currently at 100

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Two weeks ago I started on a journey to Inbox Zero, using Merlin Mann's tips for managing your email. After living with the tips in practice, I'm...getting there. My inbox went from 222 to an even 100 messages. I'll explain a few of the techniques I used to get there, and what's next to get to zero.

Separate work and personal messages - I have long had separate accounts for work and personal stuff, but I have always read them merged together in a single inbox. The first thing I did was start using Apple Mail's ability to view each email account as an independent mailbox. This helped me focus on the personal email messages and manage them faster than the piles of work stuff. I also made the decision to forward only personal messages to my iPhone, which emphasizes the importance of actually using this mailbox for personal correspondence.

Set up a few filters - I get a lot of email messages from an automated bug tracking system as work -- up to a few hundred messages a day. Previously this all went directly into my inbox, which required constant triage to read and delete (or act upon) all of it. Even if I didn't need to act on them, the messages were sitting there, looking at me, asking for attention. By automatically filtering this stuff to a separate folder, it reduced the volume level in my inbox -- since these automated messages were no longer in my face, I was able to devote dedicated attention (Merlin calls these sessions dashes) to managing this particular kind of message in its own mode (which involves a lot of skimming and deleting). The unsurprising truth: I don't need to act on (or know about) this stuff right away. If I ignore it for a while, most of it will be resolved by someone else, and I can just review what happened later on. This saves my attention for things that do make it into my actual inbox, that need me. The lesson here: save your inbox for things that are actually your job; if you're just getting messages to be informed, put them somewhere else.

Don't check as often - I set my desktop email application to check for new messages every thirty minutes any my iPhone every hour (and I wish there was a two-hour setting). Previously the desktop was checking every ten minutes. This significantly increases the span of time I can spend working on a task without being interrupted by the "new mail" sound, and getting curious about what's lurking under that icon. A related principle here is turn off the email application -- just quit it when you're doing something focused. I have gotten pretty good at this. The scary thing is, when I come back I'll have thirty more messages -- but this is actually good, because I can deal with those messages on their own terms, rather than in the middle of my other important work.

Delete stale, non-actionable items - This is where I need to do more work. There are still scores of messages from six to ten months before that really aren't actionable. Many are links I'm supposed to read -- which can be filed in a "to read" folder -- and many simply aren't relevant: projects that fizzled out and probably won't come back. I need to get up the courage to delete (or in my packrat case, file) all this stuff, so it's not sitting there in my inbox making me feel guilty.

Perhaps in another two weeks I'll be closer to my goal of Inbox Zero!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]