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Thomas Edison's Eccentric Job Interview Questions: A Cheat Sheet

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Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Thomas Edison had an encyclopedic memory, and by the early 1920s, he had become increasingly frustrated by the fact that college graduates applying to work for him didn’t have a wealth of knowledge comparable to his own. To test the mental mettle of incoming job seekers, he administered to each a series of 150 questions, tailored to the position for which they were applying. Some were specific to the industry, while others were mysterious. Masons, for instance, needed to know who assassinated President Lincoln.

Others were topical (In what cities are hats and shoes made?) and are now outdated (What telescope is largest in the world?). But just in case the Edison Quiz fad ever returns, here’s a cheat sheet to help you master some of the finer points. Good luck!

Who was Francis Marion?
An officer in the Revolutionary War, often cited as being the father of guerilla warfare. His skill at clandestinely moving troops by dressing drably and utilizing swamp paths earned him the nickname “Old Swamp Fox.”

Where is the River Volga?
Oh, the longest river in Europe? Russia, of course.

Who invented logarithms?
Scottish mathematician and ruff-wearer John Napier, in the mid 1600s. He also combined the work of Italian mathematician Fibonacci and Ottoman genius-of-all-trades Matrakç? Nasuh to invent the awesomely named “Napier’s Bones,” an abacus-like system of numbered rods that transform multiplication, division, and exponents into simple addition and subtraction.

What is the first line in The Aeneid?

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forced by fate
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore:
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore;
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latin realm and built the destined town,
His banished gods restored to rights divine,
And settled sure succession in his line;
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.
-- Virgil, and translated by John Dryden.

Note: The colon after “shore” is disputed, so we include the entire first stanza for good measure. Playwright George Bernard Shaw would have correctly answered this one, as evidenced by the title of his 1894 play Arms and the Man.

What war material did Chile export to the Allies during the War?
Sodium nitrate, which was used to manufacture gunpowder, and made Chile very rich. Nitratine appeared there in such large deposits, the mineral is also known as Chile saltpeter.

A question tailored to cabinetmakers: Who was the Roman emperor when Jesus Christ was born?
Caesar Augustus, Sept. 23, 63 BC—Aug. 19, 14 AD.

Where is the Sargasso Sea?
The only “sea” to be entirely surrounded by water, the Sargasso is actually an elliptical patch of the North Atlantic, near Bermuda. The water in this area is relatively calm and thick with seaweed (sargassum weed, actually), trapped there by the surrounding currents: the Canary Current at the northeast, the Northern Equatorial Current along the south, and the Gulf Stream on the northwest.

Because of the Sargasso’s relatively low precipitation, high evaporation, light winds, warm temperatures and high salinity, scientists used to think it was a sort of oceanic desert; they knew aquatic creatures made their habitat in the sargassum, but thought the water wasn’t hospitable to plankton. More recently, however, mysterious plankton blooms suggest that the area is “far more productive than we could explain...” according to Dennis McGillicuddy, oceanographer and leader on the Eddies Dynamics, Mixing, Export, and Species composition (EDDIES) project. Put that in your pipe, Edison.

Of what is brass made?
Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper. Humans started making brass as early as the Neolithic era, though ancient texts often use the term brass when they mean bronze – an alloy of copper and tin.

Who was Leonidas?
The military king of ancient Sparta who heroically led a mere 300 men in the battle against massive Persian forces in the battle of Thermopylae. Sure, he had some help from other Greeks, but the 300 thing is his legacy. So much so, he’s now most famous for being the guy who yells “This! Is! Spartaaaa!”

Who discovered the X-ray?
The obvious answer to this question is Wilhelm Röntgen, who, in 1895, famously noted the effects of a mysterious new kind of ray that appeared as a byproduct of his experiments with Crookes tubes. He called his discovery the “X ray,” to indicate its yet unknown properties, then went on to take a widely publicized X-ray print of the bones of his wife’s hand, and eventually won a Nobel prize in 1901 for his achievements. However, several other physicists made similar discoveries while experimenting with Crookes tubes around the same time. Among them: Nikola Tesla, Edison’s well-known rival. Edison had himself experimented with X-rays for a time, and was certainly aware of the variations in the X-ray origin story among his colleagues. This question suggests an eagerness to promote his preferred version.

Where do we get shellac?
You probably know shellac as a term commonly applied to wood varnish, which is actually a combination of alcohol and the naturally occurring thermoplastic resin also called shellac. But did you know the latter shellac is produced and secreted by the lac insect (Laccifer lacca), a type of scale bug somewhat related to aphids and cicadas? Proper shellac is also used commercially in products like sealing wax, hairspray, and even cake glazes and anti-caking agents in candy. Vegans beware.

Why is cast iron called Pig Iron?
Modern-day metal workers would argue that cast iron and pig iron are not exactly the same thing, but what Edison probably meant by pig iron was the raw material used in making iron and steel. Back in the day, pig iron was melted into casts that resembled baby piglets suckling from their mother. Likewise, iron workers used to call the iron in the adjoining lateral channel “the sow.”

Who was Bessemer and what did he do?
Henry Bessemer invented the Bessemer process, which revolutionized mass production of steel. From pig iron. See? We’re learning!

Pencils Down!

Of the well over 500 young men who took Edison’s test, only about 35 passed to his satisfaction (a score of 90% or higher). When several disgruntled rejects complained to the press, Edison refused to release his questions and answers, so the public had to rely largely on the memory of his “victims” for the complete list. Magazines subsequently began running “Edison pop quizzes,” and rival employers -- fancying themselves as exclusive as Edison -- began conducting employment quizzes of their own. Edison’s scientific conclusions on the subject?

“Only 2% of the people think, as I gather from my questionnaire.”

What's the most bizarre question you've been asked in an interview? Has the Sargasso Sea come up?

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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