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10 Tips for Criticizing People More Effectively

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In the 1930s, William B. Pettus, the president of the College of Chinese Studies in Beijing, came across a strange little Chinese essay. It began by arguing that, "having a desire to revile, should you persistently restrain it you will sooner or later develop some malady or infirmity. Therefore, having this desire, it is right to give it vent, and there is no harm in so doing."

However, the essay continued, most people lacked the skill that great reviling required. What followed was a list of tips and techniques for becoming a master reviler, "one who enjoys reviling and meets with no rebuff."

When Pettus published his translation of this book, The Art of Reviling, he did not know who the original author was. It was later revealed to be Liang Shiqiu, the scholar now known for being the first to translate the entire works of Shakespeare into Chinese. Liang also wrote light satirical sketches of Chinese life, of which this is clearly an example, but knowing it is satire makes it no less true or useful—especially in the era of internet comment sections, where mastery of the art of reviling is more important than ever. Here are the 10 keys to becoming a master reviler.

1. You must know yourself and know your man.

"If another person has shortcomings, and you yourself are guilty of the same, in reviling him it is well to avoid mention of these."

2. Do not revile those who are your inferiors.

"You should select a person at least slightly superior to yourself…as soon as he replies…this brings you on a parity with him, as one pays no heed to inferiors…If, on the contrary, you revile a person of no reputation, the more you revile, the more pleased he is. The rule is that by reviling a man of no reputation you create one for him. Is this not a distressing sequence?"

3. In reviling, enough is enough and there one should stop.

"When you are reviling a man of standing and he has replied, this is the place to stop. Should you continue you cannot carry the bystanders with you."

4. Use the method of indirect attack.

"The more severely you wish to revile one, the more important is it to begin with expressions of pity & appreciation & even of respect and regret…the listeners feel that you are only speaking the truth and regard you as a person of poise & dignity."

5. Preserve a placid exterior.

"In ordinary street reviling the crowd regards the one whose voice is the louder and demeanor the fiercer as being in the right. But one who can truly revile is able to conceal his weapon until his antagonist's is wearied…when all energy is expended, he can retort in a few words, every one of which will draw blood."

6. In reviling use chaste and elegant language.

"Prevent your antagonist from perceiving, at first, that he is being reviled…the more polite your expressions the sharper will be the sting. It is a good rule in reviling to incorporate in your retorts favorite expressions of your antagonist."

7. Conquer by retreating.

"When about to revile and you remember that you yourself have shortcomings, it is wise at the start boldly to acknowledge these in a thorough manner…You must bring yourself down to the humblest position. This prevents your opponent's bringing you down to a lower level."

8. Lay a trap for your adversary.

"One experienced in reviling carefully notes his antagonist's every expression for those which can be returned with telling effect…by dropping an insignificant expression he will grasp at it and shoot his arrow…show him that it has lodged in a sandbank and that no injury results."

9. Make much of little.

"If a person deserves reviling, but the offense is of minor significance & scarcely worthy of reprimand…lead him into deeper water. Point by point use correct logic and endeavor to lead him to make illogical statements…When this is accomplished you can turn & severely revile him."

10. Make war on that which is near and cultivate friendship for that which is remote.

"At one time revile only one person, or, if need be, only one class of men, or you will have too many adversaries. Attack your opponent, but do not involve the listener. If it is absolutely necessary to include a large number of persons, under these circumstances you should declare that in so doing you have the interest of all at heart. If you fail in this you will have an avalanche of reviling descend upon you which will be troublesome to withstand."

Now go forth and revile well, my friends.

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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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May 23, 2017
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