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27 Bits of Wisdom from 2012 Commencement Addresses

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At Goucher College last month, Ira Glass said that commencement speakers "give stock advice, which is then promptly ignored.” He may be right. Every year, speakers spew the same old sayings: Never give up! Embrace failure! Be passionate! Here’s a look at speakers who said things a little differently this year.

Image credit: Mount Holyoke

1. Neil deGrasse Tyson (Astrophysicist): Mount Holyoke College, MA
“I need the rest of you to help me fix the world. The rest of the world is getting stupider.”

2. Adam Savage (Host: Mythbusters): Sarah Lawrence College, NY
“Think about what you thought college would be like, and what you expected yourself to be like. Now look at yourself. I'm going to hazard a guess and say that things totally didn't turn out like you expected. This process will repeat itself ad nauseam throughout your entire life.”

3. Samuel Palmisano (Former CEO IBM): Johns Hopkins University, MD
“Maybe the best decision for you is to run away and join the circus. But don't model yourself on one of the animals, performing tricks for the trainers who throw peanuts.”

4. Aaron Sorkin (Screenwriter, Playwright): Syracuse University, NY
"You’re too good for schadenfreude. You’re too good for gossip and snark. You’re too good for intolerance… you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy—unless they went to Georgetown, in which case they can go to hell.”

5. Neil Gaiman (Author): University of the Arts, PA
“The problems of failure are hard. The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.”

6. Jane Lynch (Actress): Smith College, MA
“If I could do so much of my early life over, I would have taken more moments like this to breathe… I wouldn’t have been forever trying to look around the corner to see ‘What’s next, what’s next?!’”

7. Eric Schmidt (Former Google CEO): Boston University, MA
“Don’t just push a button saying [you] 'Like' something. Actually tell them. What a concept!”

8. Tom Brokaw (Journalist): Arizona State University
“All your life you have been hearing about how your lives will be changed on this occasion as you enter the real world. I have a news bulletin for you tonight. You’ve already been there. Turns out, junior high was the real world ... The same petty jealousies, the insecurities, the snobs, the cliques, the dorks, the egos, the tantrums, and the dopes that you met in junior high, you’re going to encounter for the rest of your lives.”

Image credit: Goucher College

9. Ira Glass (Radio Personality): Goucher College, MD
"You will be stupid. You will worry your parents. You will question your own choices, your relationships, your jobs, your friends, where you live, what you studied in college, that you went to college at all... If that happens, you're doing it right.”

10. Dom Sagolla (Twitter co-creator): Becker College, MA
"Embrace constraints; seek them out. Many people feel that social or political constraints are an excuse to fail, but I find them to be freeing. You know, you look at Twitter with 140 characters to get your message across... Some of the best small companies thrive because constraints inspire creativity.”

11. Ted Koppel (Journalist): UMass Amherst
"If we ignore all the serious issues or try to reduce them all to 140 characters or fewer exchanges, we are going to have ... genuine problems, not just in the economy, but in foreign policy, education, health.”

12. Laurie Anderson (Multimedia Artist): School of Visual Arts, NY
“No one is ever going to ask you to do the thing you really want to do. This will never happen. So just think about what you’d like to do, and then just start doing it.”

13. More Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse
“Make no mistake about it, you are dumb. You are a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people… There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups … but they're coming for ya. It's a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.”

14. Jamaica Kincaid (Novelist): Grinell College, IA
"You must bite the hand that feeds you. You are perhaps always told the opposite of this…But from time to time, I tell you, you must."

15. Anna Quindlen (Author, Journalist): Bucknell University, PA
"The voices of conformity speak so loudly. Don't listen to them. No one does the right thing out of fear. If you ever utter the words, 'We've always done it that way,' I urge you to wash out your mouth with soap.”

16. Amy Kule (Organizer, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade): Ithaca College, NY
“You will find the most onerous chains to break in your lives are the ones that you’ve tethered there yourselves.”

17. David Simon (TV writer, producer): Georgetown University, DC
“Marching out into this beleaguered world of ours – you suckers are gonna need all the laughter you can get. Take solace in humor, people. As much as you can.”

Image credit: University of Virginia

18. Katie Couric (Journalist): University of Virginia
“Don’t look for jobs. Look for people.”

19. Jim Lehrer (Journalist): College of William and Mary, VA
“Please don’t mistake what is happening here today. The fact that you are receiving a diploma from one of America’s finest institutions of higher learning does not mean you are educated.”

20. Steve Karmen (Composer): Binghamton University, NY
“If your parents support your dreams, say thank you. Over and over and over again. And if they don’t? Well, you’ll just have to show them, won’t you?”

21. Rick MacArthur (Journalist, Author): Columbia University, NY
“My advice to all of you today…is to absorb, to question, to challenge, to refute any author on any subject—or for that matter, any politician or commencement speaker.”

22. Bill Strickland (Author, Educator): Middlebury College, VT
“Do not give up on the poor kids. They might end up being the commencement speaker one day.”

23. Robert Smith (NPR Correspondent): Reed College, OR
“I’m going to get in trouble for this. I know, for your whole life, people have said, ‘Be yourself.’ I’m telling you: not yet.”

24. Anne Fadiman (Author): Trinity College, CT
“I ask you to do two contradictory things—honor difference and commonality. There is a way to do both. Don’t assume that you…stand at the center of the universe. It isn’t true and it never helps.”

25. Leymah Gbowee (Nobel Laureate, Peace Prize): Vassar College, NY
“Let me tell you something. If you think there are social problems and you are comfortable in your fence, trust me, if you don’t help to address those problems, they’ll come knocking at your door.”

26. Elie Wiesel (Author, Holocaust Survivor): Wagner College, NY
“Remember that despair is never the solution. Remember, hatred is never an option. Remember that hope is not a gift given to us, hope is a gift that we give to others."

27. Robert de Niro (Actor): Bates College, ME
“I have one message for you, class of 2012: Stay in school.”
* * *
Do you remember anything your commencement speaker told you? Want to throw any advice on the pile for the class of 2012?

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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