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Lectures for a New Year: Fourth Week in Review

For the month of January I'm bringing you a great lecture every weekday. This week I picked my favorite RSA Animate Talks, along with their associated full lectures. In case you missed one, here's a review of the lectures posted this week.

Our Broken Educational System

First up, an “RSA Animate” talk — a whiteboard drawing done by hand (although edited a bit to speed it up), along with the audio from a lecture by Sir Ken Robinson. The lecture, like all of Robinson’s work, discusses what’s wrong with our educational system, at a deep level — in a very brief talk, he lays out a cogent argument that our educational system is predicated on systems of thought that are hundreds of years out of date, and thus fundamentally flawed. The whole thing is very active — it moves rapidly, is full of jokes, and is just eleven minutes long. But at the same time, there’s a lot to dig into here. If you enjoy this, you’ll also like Robinson’s talk highlighted last week, How Schools Fail Creative Kids, or the hour-long source lecture that this animation was based on (see below).

Read more and watch the lecture.

We are Empathic Monkeys

Economist Jeremy Rifkin discusses emerging research on empathy. It’s a fast-paced, smart talk — and it deals with the core question what is empathy? More than wondering what it is, Rifkin discusses how we observe it arise in each human (anyone who has been around kids has observed this progression), research on animals that demonstrates the neurological basis of empathy, and the philosophical implications of empathy for our world. Why does empathy matter? Ultimately because we’re all gonna die — and we might as well make the world a nice place to share.

Read more and watch the lecture.

The Divided Brain

Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explains how our notion of the hemispheres of the brain being ultra-separate is a drastic oversimplification, and has had consequences for how we think about our behavior, our culture, and our society. This talk complements Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk (posted in this series two weeks back), in which she discusses the profoundly different minds present in her own hemispheres — and how she experienced the world differently during and after her stroke. McGilchrist comes across in this condensed animation as exceedingly academic — I frankly felt a bit lost at times — which is why, under ‘Bonus Points’ below, I’ve included the somewhat longer original talk, which isn’t condensed, and thus does a better job of making these points without hurrying. My advice: if you watch this animation and find it intriguing but confusing, just switch to the next video. You’ll get a lot out of it.

Read more and watch the lecture.

Is Time on Your Side?

As Zimbardo says, “Most of us are here because we’re future-oriented. We have learned to work, rather than play — to resist temptation. But there’s another way to be future-oriented. Depending on your religion, life begins after the death of the mortal body. To be future-oriented, you have to trust that when you make a decision about the future, it’s gonna carry out.” He proceeds to discuss how in different cultures, people have different paces of life, different time orientations, and how that affects their societies’ function. He also goes into a detailed discussion of how computers and technology change our perception of time, and what that means for things like technology. Basically, Zimbardo makes a powerful argument that our individual (and collective) perception of time affects our health, wellbeing, and work habits. This is great stuff.

Read more and watch the lecture.

What Motivates Us, Aside from Money

Author and former Al Gore speechwriter Dan Pink discusses a series of studies about what motivates people — and more practically, what motivates workers. He takes apart the simplistic notion that monetary rewards result in better performance; such rewards do improve performance for purely mechanical tasks, but when you get into knowledge work, it’s not just about the money. In this talk, Pink lays out a simple set of guidelines that will help any worker or employer understand what actually improves performance — and that could lead to a better workplace for all of us. Have a look! Also, keep an eye open for an onscreen misspelling of “weird.”

Read more and watch the lecture.

Up Next

Sadly, January comes to a close next week. I have an enormous back catalogue of lectures that didn't make it into this month's experiment. I'll show you a few of those favorites, then we can get to talking about what happens next on the lecture front.

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:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

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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