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The Late Movies: Merlin Mann's Greatest Hits

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If you don't know Merlin Mann, you're in for a treat. In the most recent edition of his Bulk Bag Newsletter, Merlin ran down five of his favorite talks, all available in handy online video format. I have rearranged the videos in chronological order (Merlin put them in order of awesomeness), so you can get a better sense of Merlin's public progression from "tips and tricks guy" through "realizing the entire internet has somehow become a tips and tricks guy" to his current position of "heart-on-his-sleeve brilliant rambler."

Merlin is a polarizing figure in nerd circles -- people tend to love him or hate him, and I think a lot of people (probably on both sides) misunderstand him. He's best known for his Inbox Zero talk (which is widely misunderstood to be about having zero emails in your inbox), and the majority of his deep thinking is about the problems of creative work, though many who follow him are not themselves in creative careers. Merlin has a tendency to ramble and riff -- which you may find charming or infuriating, depending on whether you get the jokes and like the guy. One of his most compelling (and/or confusing) traits is an increasing tendency to make meaning out of meaningless words and jokes (like "blue-sky solutioneering"), occupying an existentially and linguistically awkward space in which it's up to the listener to determine what, if anything, a given statement means -- some jokes are jokes, some jokes are sincere statements. It's an exercise for the reader to discern the difference. I think this is great; your mileage may vary. Watching the videos below, you can see this clear progression: he starts with a fully prepared, "professional" talk that's light on digressions, but as time passes he wings it more and more, showing more emotion as he goes.

I think Merlin is the single most interesting Internet Person I've run across. He is incredibly vulnerable, and he shares that vulnerability in a way that demonstrates fortitude. He's also a terrific singer and guitarist, but you wouldn't know it. Check out these videos, and beware the sporadic f-bombs.

Inbox Zero, 2007

Creating a distinction between "checking your email" and "processing your email." In retrospect, this talk is Merlin at his most practical and systematic -- he's talking about managing a particular technology (email) with a particular system (Inbox Zero). If your inbox doesn't represent a pain point for you, this talk probably won't matter much for you. But if, like me, you get hundreds of emails a day and live in an indetermine "world of pain" when surveying that influx of crap, this is a way to deal with it.

Worst Website Ever - 'FlockdUp,' 2008

In this talk from SxSW 2008, Merlin shares his "worst website ever" concept: FlockedUp™. It is a beautiful six-minute riff of meaninglessness, using the terminology of bizdev BS. For example: "FlockdUp™ is really uniquely positioned at this juncture to suck all of the oxygen out of this vertical. [A full two minutes of corpdork pseudowords continue.]" Featuring FlockBux™: "Like Money, but Monetized.©"

Makebelieve Help, Old Butchers, and Figuring Out Who You Are (For Now), 2009

Slightly NSFW (for language) at the beginning, somewhat rambling, and super-honest. On internet-based lists: "Little nacho chips of information that are really addicting." In general, this is a discussion about self-help, "life hacks," what real help is, why "knowledge work" is hard and encourages a particular form of help/hack-consumption, and (wait for it) old butchers.

Time & Attention, 2010

I'll let Merlin explain:

One afternoon in New Jersey, I was anxious, and screwed, and under a lot of pressure.

First, the gig started really late because of three different grave technical problems. But, I had to get up there and Do My Thing. Unfortunately, my slides wouldn’t work, the mood in the room fell somewhere between total death and roiling hostility, and, so, I had to wing it. For 90 minutes. Lotta winging here.

This is basically where Merlin talks about the underlying issues (time and attention) that were the underlayment for most or all of his previous work.

Scared Sh*tless, 2011

At Webstock last year, Merlin gave a highly emotional talk about being scared. Note that this came shortly before the apparent collapse of an Inbox Zero book deal that had been occupying him more than full-time for years. (While discussing Springsteen's Born to Run saga: "Why is this meaningful to me? Ask me in a few weeks." Ahem.) Also, that mic is really not fitting in his ear properly. I just want to warn you again, this is really emotional and might make you cry if you watch for long enough.

More Mann

Check out the excellent podcast Back to Work.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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