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How to Learn Fast: Clever Tips from Tim Ferriss

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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!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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