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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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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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