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12 Easy Tips to Help You Improve Your Workspace

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A new year may mean a new and improved focus on work. Returning to a disorganized workspace, however, may kill your impetus to get productive. According to a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, “multiple visual stimuli” are in “neural competition” for your limited attention. All that clutter lying around in your space cries out to be dealt with, reducing the cognitive capacity you have left to devote to productive tasks.

If that weren't enough, other aspects of your workspace environment can also affect motivation levels. The good news is that improving your workspace can be easy. Here are some tips to help.


When it comes to workspace lighting, you can’t beat nature. Light regulates substances such as melatonin and serotonin in the brain, affecting wakefulness and mood. As human brains have evolved to respond to natural daylight, we’re not at our best in low-quality electric light. Flood your workspace with as much natural light as possible. Blinds help to reduce glare, but lift them when they aren’t in use for that purpose. Also, make sure you have a flexible mix of different types of artificial lighting. Replace old tungsten bulbs with quality, flicker-free, energy-saving ones that are bright but not too clinically white.


According to an analysis of 24 studies, the optimal temperature for your workspace is 71 degrees Fahrenheit (21.5 degrees Celsius). If the average temperature of your space is way above or below that, it may be time to reassess.


Ideally, the top of your monitor should be at eye-level when you are looking directly forward. Some monitors have adjustable stands, making it easy to raise or lower them. Others have more basic stands, and you’ll need to elevate them on a solid platform (not on top of a wobbly pile of paperbacks!) to get the height right. You can buy a simple monitor riser cheaply enough, but making your own customized one is an easy DIY project if you have the time. Some 1 by 8 inch lumber, a few screws, and some wood glue should do it.


Scientific studies, like this one published in SAGE, show that color affects mood and motivation. You may have heard people say things like “green makes you calmer” or “red makes you aggressive,” but it’s not as simple as that. We respond to color in complex ways, so we need variety and balance in the colors in our workspace environment, and colors should be appropriate to the space.

Warm yellow may be a good choice for the walls in your office, whereas bright red may not. But having a few blocks of red here and there is better than a sterile white space. Well-chosen, colorful pictures can also improve an office immensely. Try introducing some of your own artwork into your workspace. Many online printing services will now print to canvas, so you can make your psychedelic Photoshop creations look professional. Photograph some bright flowers, blow up huge, print on canvas—easy.


Workspace noise can distract you from productive tasks. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to baffle this kind of noise with sound insulation. Acoustic panels or screens work well but can be expensive. For a DIY version, cover dense mineral wool board with an attractive fabric. Fix these to your walls as panels, or frame them with timber and hinge together to make a screen.


Potted plants add color and interest to a workspace. By putting a little outside environment inside in the form of plants, we perhaps feel less constrained by our artificial surroundings and tend to relax a bit more. Plants can even improve the air quality in your workspace. Some office equipment and lighting emits ozone gas, which can be toxic in high doses. This study from the American Society for Horticultural Science looked at some common indoor plants with rich foliage and found that they reduced levels of ozone in enclosed spaces.


We all need regular breaks during our workday. Nevertheless, it’s easy to forget to stop and move about every so often when you’re immersed in a task (especially if you’re in the pleasurable mental state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named “flow”.) To force yourself to move, you need an incentive. And what better incentive than a steaming mug of strong coffee? If your kettle or coffeemaker is in your workspace, move it to another room—or at least a decent distance from your desk. That way you’ll get the same coffee buzz plus a short break and some added exercise.


You may have found that you work better in a different environment—a coffee shop, a diner, an airplane, a hotel lobby—than at your desk. If so, try to figure out what it is about that environment that allows you to concentrate well. Make a list of your impressions of that place (furnishings, lighting, colors, sounds, aromas, etc.), then try to bring some of those elements to your regular workspace. So, for example, if your favorite cafe plays instrumental jazz, compile some playlists that you can listen to at your desk.


Of all the clutter in your workspace, it’s the stuff in your near visual field on your desk that causes most “neural competition” for your attention. Some people are almost fetishistic about having the “right” accessories to organize their desk, that it all has to be a coordinated (and probably expensive) set. But you can organize your desktop clutter without any fancy accessories. First, get rid of any stuff you don’t need. Then, raid your kitchen cupboards for useful tubs and storage boxes. I’ll bet you can fit more handy markers and rulers into an old coffee mug than the average exec can fit into his black leather, hand-stitched, laser-engraved fountain-pen stand.


Some clutter is virtual, like the clutter of icons on your computer desktop. They may not be physical in the way that your hole punch is, but they still draw your attention and make it difficult to find the app or document you are looking for. Having too many may even slow down your computer. If you can, clear your computer desktop at the end of each working day.


A tangled cable mess can be a distracting eyesore. Fortunately, it’s easy to get it all organized without unplugging altogether. Braided sleeving is great when you want to bunch cables together for a permanent installation. Even a sturdy cardboard tube will help to hold cables in check. Binder clips are another great way to keep cables organized and flush with the sides or back of your desk. If you have space, fix a basket or rail to the rear of your desk to hold floor-trailing cables up and out of sight.

12. MIX IT UP.

Even if you have a great everyday working space, a little spatial variety helps you to stay productive. Try creating “sub spaces”—different zones within your main workspace. You could have, say, a standing desk in one zone and a seated one in another. You could have a minimalist “contemplation space,” perhaps screened off from your main desk. Or you could have a comfortable lounging space with added benefits. “Embodied cognition” theory hints that our mental states are connected intimately with physical stuff we interact with. So, kicking back for a while on a beanbag in your workspace might let you clear your head enough to come up with a revolutionary squashy, warm, comfortable new idea.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]