Original image

How to Learn Fast: Clever Tips from Tim Ferriss

Original image

Tim Ferriss is a New York Times best-selling author, widely known for his book The Four-Hour Work Week. Not only has he cracked the secrets of productivity, he's figured out how to learn things super quickly! Mental Floss' own Chetan Nandakumar managed to snag a few minutes with him.

We're interested in this notion of rapid learning. What sort of things have you been able to  master?

Things like Argentine tango, for example. I went from my first class to the world championships in Argentina in about five and half to 6 months, something like that. What else? Yabusame.


Yabusame is Japanese horseback archery. I learned it for a pilot with the History channel. These Yabusame riders will generally train 10 "“ 20 years before real competition where they are galloping full speed on a horse with no hands, shooting at three targets.The most dangerous part is you are flying on this horse galloping full speed. There are roughly three foot poles on either side of the horse every four feet or so and those can be made out of iron. If you fall off the horse you could hit those or get trampled by the horse itself. In any case, I had five days to prepare. I ended up doing my final test with two targets instead of three, but I ended up hitting both targets.

I've also read that you became a National Chinese Kickboxing Champion in almost no time. But your learning method isn't just limited to extreme sports, right?

Sure. I have studied probably a dozen or so more esoteric languages like Gaelic Irish, and languages of many different varieties including Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, German, and Spanish.

Are there some overarching principles that apply across domains?

The first is that material is more important than method. There is a focus and over focus on methodologies of learning. What's most important is the material and the sequence of the material. So, for example, when I learned Japanese, I was forced to develop my own approach. If you can use the Ministry of Education word frequency studies and identify the most frequently used words in both conversation and in written language, there are 2000 words. If you group those properly and sequence them you can achieve conversation fluency in three or four months, in some cases faster.

Point two is association, basically the power of associative memorization. Since you have this pre-existing base as an adult of idiomatic English, idiomatic expressions, and inclusive grammatical knowledge, you can associate that with your new language through translation or association. That association applies to physical activity as well. For example, I was an all American wrestler in high school in 1995.  So I might look at how wrestling principles could potentially apply to tango. You actually find that certain basic physiological principles apply whether that is related to posture or the male lead.

The third important thing is self-observation, which is critically important. It's something I did none of for a very long time until I realized how important it was. With tango for example, I recorded almost every lesson that I did.  We are talking about hundreds of lessons and hundreds of training sessions. In tango a dance partner cannot tell you what you look like as they are dancing. They just don't have the necessary vantage point, so what I found is that I thought I was dancing really well two and a half months into practice and then I saw a video of myself -- my posture was horrendous and I also had my knees further apart than I should have which was extremely unattractive! I looked really, really bad. So I started recording all of my sessions and I created a critical shorthand. If I saw a new move I could say, "Ah! this looks like the left foot open, but it's with a slight, like 90 degree rotation of the upper torso."

Your rapid learning approach seems to require a lot of analysis and self-observation. Can anyone do this?

I have an unusual level of focus when I decide that I want to learn a particular skill, but many other people do the same thing. I know people who have gone from nowhere to the Boston Marathon in a span of a year and it requires that same level of analysis.

Are there any limits to what someone can learn?

I think there are certain genetic limits to what you can achieve in a given field.  So if you look at the national level of swimmers in a swimming competition, you will find that the higher you go the more homogenous the body types are. When you get to the finals in the Olympics everybody looks pretty much the same.  They are all like 6' 1" pretty much built for optimal hydrodynamics. For that reason I would only be able to reach a certain level in that field.

Has your approach been influenced by findings from neuroscience and psychology?

4hrWell, there are a few. Like if you start learning a language for example, with a box of high frequency placards ordered from A to Z, people will then be learning from A to Z. Unfortunately that type of learning often times create a serial dependency -- if I ask you what letter of the alphabet is K, you will have to go A, B, C, D, E, "¦ etc. You will have to go through each alphabet in order to recall. If I am using a textbook, the vocabulary for a given lesson is in a particular order and you are susceptible to the same problem. So I will always randomize everything. And all of this has been studied extensively in laboratories. They are very fond of doing serial versus randomized testing, because it is relatively easier to measure.

Any thoughts on education in schools? Do you have any insight in how we could better structure our education system?

Education systems should first and foremost educate students how to learn and not just teach specific subjects. While the latter is obviously important, the former is of paramount importance because you enable the student to be able to acquire knowledge and skills beyond what can be presented in the classroom. The main problems plaguing the US public educational system are political and legal as opposed to based on curriculum.

To rapidly learn more about Tim Ferriss, click here.

Got any leads for who we should interview next? Drop them in the comments. And if we end up one, we'll be sure to include your name in the next piece!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
Original image
Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.