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Lectures for a New Year: Temple Grandin on Autism

This is a TED classic: Temple Grandin explaining what it's like to be autistic, shortly after the release of a movie based on her book Thinking in Pictures. In the book and in the talk, Grandin explains how her cognitive experience as an autistic person differs from that of an average person (let's not say "normal"). Grandin's brain is very visual, and that has helped in her animal husbandry work -- she can think as an animal presumably thinks, and because of that, she's uniquely situated to understand why animals behave as they do.

Grandin's lecture shows two crucial qualities in a good lecture: first, an engaging persona -- we enjoy Grandin's enthusiasm about tangents like church steeples and her repeated concerns about whether kids these days will be taken care of; and second, an actual point -- she's saying, quite simply, there are different kinds of minds. Rather than pathologize these differences and try to "fix" them, we can celebrate them, and as a society we actually need all these different sorts of thinkers. The Q&A at the end is also surprisingly good (albeit brief). Oh, and she even wears a super-cool shirt. I mean, this is pretty much solid lecture gold.

Topics: the autistic spectrum, thinking in pictures, how to teach kids, why we need different kinds of people, and some thoughts on her book and the movie that was made based on it.

For: everyone, especially parents.

Viewing note: you can watch a higher-quality video on the TED site. The YouTube quality is not too bad on this one, though.

Further Reading

I highly recommend Grandin's book Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. This is a book that appeals to basically everyone: there's a strong element of memoir, a bunch of information about what it's like to be autistic (including some amazing material about Grandin's hug machine), and a bunch of stuff about animal husbandry (which, quite frankly, most people never think about). It was adapted into an excellent HBO movie (YouTube trailer link) with a stellar performance by Claire Danes and directed by Mick Jackson (who did L.A. Story, among others). If you want a sample of the movie, check out this clip.

Transcript

TED provides an interactive transcript as well as subtitles, downloads with subtitles, and so on.

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we’ll check it out!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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!

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Opening Ceremony
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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