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Creatively Speaking: Alexis Ohanian

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You'll love today's Creatively Speaking interview with co-founder Alexis Ohanian. I mean it. Even if you don't yet know what reddit is"¦ the kid is pure genius. And, apparently, a musician (and natural wit), as well.


Reddit founders: Chris Slowe, Alexis Ohanian, the alien, Steve Huffman

DI: I guess i should lead with the absolute most important question--the one on every reader's mind: what's the deal with the little reddit cartoon character? Is there a story behind him/her/it? A name? A history worth sharing?

AO: I was bored in marketing class one day and decided our yet undesigned website needed a mascot -- one from the future. That way, we knew the startup would succeed. How else would it have been able to travel through time?

Otherwise, there's not much of a history to it (yes, "it" this alien has no need for gender. The sex life of the future isn't very alluring. Be warned.) My first version looked like something from Soviet propaganda, but the third version is basically what you see today. I still can't believe Steve let me talk him into that...

Oh, and there is a name, but I never tell on the first interview.

DI: How did you guys hit upon the idea for the site?

AO: Actually, we stumbled into it. It hit us after we'd gotten rejected by Y Combinator (the seed stage venture firm that ultimately invested in us). We were called back and told we'd be accepted as long as we changed the idea we'd applied with.

It was later that afternoon when Steve and I realized we had a common problem with finding new and interesting content every morning (and again when we were bored at class during the day, or in the library, or...) I was the one with about twenty tabs open and Steve had long been a Slashdot user and student of great community content. Somehow it became the problem we'd solve, Paul Graham seized it and aptly titled our quest, "building the front page of the web."

DI: As i understand it, there have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions since you guys went live in 2005. Has it been hard maintaining your quiet, simple footprint and design as larger and larger companies get involved? Probably not the best comparison, but Kiehls just isn't the same since L'Oreal bought them out - nary a free sample in the store these days.

AO: Those capitalized words look awfully foreign to me. Fortunately for us, our acquiring company (Wired Digital) has gone out of its way to give us a ludicrous degree of autonomy. Really, ludicrous. I'm writing this on a beach in Costa Rica, where I've been for the last four months.

OK, that's not true. But having Conde Nast (of Vogue and GQ fame) as a parent company has made us all much better dressed.

OK, that's also not true.

DI: So what's the biggest difference between you guys and, say, Digg?

AO: We covered that with the first question: the mascot. I've confirmed that their mascot, a featureless humanoid armed with only a shovel, wouldn't stand a chance against our alien.

That, and I believe our communities are very different. You won't have to try hard on reddit to find an expert on some subject -- no matter how obscure (Erlang redditors, I'm looking at you). Some of the best content on the site comes from the comments of users either fact-checking, debating, or just being witty.

Our sites are also fundamentally different. reddit is unique in that the links on the front page are constantly rising and falling. Hit reload every few minutes on reddit and you'll see popular stories floating up while others fall down. You'll also be helping us hit our revenue goal (thanks!).

We're proud to say that we didn't do our research when starting reddit and hadn't heard of digg until a few weeks after we launched. They'd already been around for over half a year at that point, but we had the advantage of ignorance, which I believe is why we've always been so different and thus stayed so competitive.

That said, the celebrity of Kevin Rose and digg did us a lot of favors by educating folks about the concept of a news website that was edited by its readers.

DI: Okay, so now for the programming geeks in the blog: can you talk about the nitty-gritty? How did you build the site and how do you maintain it?

AO: Wrong interviewee. Steve restricted my Subversion access after 2 months. We originally wrote the site in Lisp, gaining us worldwide fame within the Lisp community. This pushed our traffic numbers to around 100 users a day.

Sadly, we switched over to Python within six months. Until around that point when we made our first hire, Steve did all the development and I did the mascot doodling (and the other non-programming things). We'd discuss features, I'd design them in my cracked shareware copy of PSP 5.0 and he'd implement. I don't know what he does in Emacs, but it's magical.

Nowadays our team has exploded to a total of five. Maintaining the site has become a bit easier now that Steve no longer has to sleep with his laptop (Not out of loneliness, but because the site was so unstable in those early months).

DI: What do you like to do when you're not redditing?

AO: Read stuff printed on dead trees bound with glue (paperback, please). Or my Kindle. I also play more video games than a 24-year-old probably should, but my gaming habits have curbed significantly since I quit my level 60 paladin. Oh, and did I mention that I'm in a band? ( - more on that later)

DI: If you could have lunch with any dead person from history, who would it be and why? And it better not be the alien dude.

AO: I knew that history major was going to come in handy. I should probably toss out the name of some esoteric figure, but I primarily studied German history around the Second World War -- most of those folks ought to stay dead.

Wouldn't that be an awkward conversation: "Well, hi, welcome back. Want to get a sandwich?"

Instead, I think I'd have lunch with Jesus. Because if I could resurrect him for lunch, then that would make me...

DI: Working on anything new?

AO: I've been investing a lot of free time in breadpig lately. Breadpig, Inc. It's a pig with bread wings and deliberate attempt to create a company that forgoes making a profit for doing interesting (and vaguely charitable) things. I basically wanted to design and do geeky things that people wanted to buy, but none of the money.

Although I don't personally want the profit from breadpig, I want the opportunity to try and come up with clever things to do with it (that don't involve pimping rides or filling pools with chocolate sauce).

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]