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5 People Who Exploited the Web to Get Hired

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My friend and co-blogger here on the _floss, Rob Lammle, had an awesome post a few weeks back: How to Tweet Your Way Out of a Job. While I wasn't able to find quite as many people who tweeted their way INTO a job, there's at least one in the list below, and a bunch of other cool people who used the Web to their advantage in unusual ways. By all means, if you have a similar story, something personal, share it with us in the comments below.

1. Eugene Hsu

In a world where drab, formulaic, cookie-cutter resumes are de rigueur, Eugene Hsu wanted to stand out in a big way. So the MIT Ph.D candidate put his drawing and coding skills to use creating an online resume using mainly Microsoft Paint. The result? A fun, whimsical, almost silly version of a traditional CV. Hsu worked in animation research and used his technological and artistic skills to basically lobby the future for a job. Despite some critics who felt it was absurd and inappropriate, it worked for Hsu and he's now gainfully employed. The online comic-CV also impressed me, and I approached Eugene to see if he'd be interested in contributing to my own little online venture, Twaggies.com, which he was happy to do. Check out examples of his work on the site here and here.

2. Jon Barker

Jon Barker loved Gmail but was frustrated he could only view his mail online. So, he wrote a little program called Pop goes the Gmail that enabled him to download his email to his desktop. It worked really well and fit Jon's needs perfectly. There was only one problem—Barker had hacked into the then-new Gmail, a highly guarded pet-project that Google had opened to only a select few users, and had gone against Gmail's terms of service. When the first email arrived from Google Vice-President, Barker expected to be slapped with a lawsuit. Instead, it was Google offering him a job.

3. Alec Brownstein

Alec Brownstein had a humdrum job as an average copywriter at a large international average agency—a cog in the giant wheel who dreamed of working at a more creative agency where he could make a real impact. While Googling some of his favorite creative directors, he came up with a brilliant, self-marketing campaign. After noticing there were no sponsored links attached to their names, he purchased ads from Google AdWords. Then he designed a personalized ad for each executive with a link back to Brownstein's own site. Whenever anyone Googled one of the five names, his ad would pop up as the top result. He was counting on them doing what we all do from time to time: Googling ourselves. And guess what? That's exactly what happened. Within a couple of months, Brownstein was interviewed by all but one. Two of the four offered him a job. The total cost of the entire campaign at 15 cents a clink—a mere $6 to make a dream come true. Check out the video he made about it below:

4. Simone Brunozzi

Disenchanted with his position as a system administrator for the University for Foreigners in Perugia, Italy, Simone Brunozzi looked for an escape in the virtual world of Second Life. He had planned to visit the virtual job fair in Luxembourg in order to write a post for his Second Life blog. As good fortuna would have it, Amazon.com was one of the prospective employers. Bruzonni had dreamed of working for a company like Amazon since he had studied abroad in California. Through his avatar, he visited the Amazon representative. An unassuming visit to a virtual world landed him a dream job as a Web Services Evangelist. Bruzonni credits his computer expertise and professional avatar with sealing the deal.

5. Renee Libby

Like many others, Renee Libby found herself without a job when the economy tanked. Her first line of defense? She jumped on her computer and began tweeting. Using Twitter, she began to follow other PR executives in the Baltimore area where she lived. She also committed herself to tweeting every hour or so about news specific to the PR industry in Baltimore. The more execs she followed, the more she was followed back. It wasn't long before the director of public relations for Baltimore-based SPIN contacted Libby and suggested she start freelancing for the company, which not only soon turned into a full-time position, but one that paid even more than the job she lost before she got on Twitter! You can follow Renee on Twitter here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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