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6 Weird Interview Questions—And How to Answer Them

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You know your strengths and weaknesses. You’re ready to talk about big accomplishments at work. You can recite your resume forward and backward. But before you consider your interview prep complete, consider this common HR question: What’s the last good book you read?

Huh? “I’ve often compared interviewing to the world of dating—you’re both trying to make a good first impression and get to know each other quickly, in an unnatural context,” says Lavie Margolin, author of Winning Answers to 500 Interview Questions. And as culture fit becomes more important for employers, hiring managers are deploying more personal and oddball questions to throw candidates off their scripted game and get a glimpse of how they think and behave.

Indeed, when the job site Glassdoor sifted through thousands of interview reviews last year and compiled a list of the 50 most common questions, several—like "What are your favorite hobbies?" and "What’s your favorite website?"—seemed more worthy of a first date than a professional meeting.

But even when the interviewer throws you a curveball, you can still hit it out of the park, Margolin says, by being professional (but not phony) and putting your response in context. He walks us through some of the more common offbeat queries.

1. WHAT'S THE LAST GOOD BOOK YOU'VE READ?

“We can assume they’re asking because they want to know if you’re a thoughtful person, and if you use your time off to develop your knowledge or explore new ideas," Margolin says. "So pick something a little meatier to highlight, but don’t think the book has to to be specific to the industry you’re interviewing for. If it’s a teaching position, you don’t have to say you only read about education reform, for instance. When you’re answering, don’t just state the book, provide some detail. So, if I read Michael Chabon’s [The Amazing Adventures ofKavalier and Clay, I might talk for a minute about how I appreciate the architectural detail in the story and learning about the various buildings in that time.” 

2. WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME? 

“Being well-rounded is a universal plus, so don’t be afraid to say you like hiking and camping, if you’re a computer programmer hunched over your desk most of the day, or you like volunteering with kids even if it’s a high-pressure position. You obviously want to avoid mentioning any kind of vices, including activities you might not think of as vices, like video games. There’s still a perception, particularly among older interviewers, that gaming means staring at the TV with your mouth agape. If you have a family at home, you can certainly touch upon spending time with them, but keep in mind there is a gender bias against women talking too much about family. It can spark concerns that you might not be dedicated to the role.”

3. WHAT DO YOU MISS ABOUT WORK ON VACATION?

“This is one way to gauge how work relates to your life. You might think they want to hear that you have a hard time leaving work, but that’s not true. They want to hire people who know how to recharge their batteries and recover, no matter how demanding the role is. So speak to the things that you enjoy most at work—the collaboration, the challenge, the pace—and acknowledge that coming back recharged lets you enjoy those things even more.”

4. IF YOU HAD A CHOICE BETWEEN TWO SUPERPOWERS, WHICH WOULD YOU CHOOSE?

“Most jobs involve unknown stressors, particularly if the position is client-facing, like in sales or marketing, so they’re trying to see how you react. Some people might shut down or laugh nervously, so if you’re able to face the question head on and take it seriously, that’s a big plus. Does it really matter whether you pick invisibility or flight? No. But do explain your reasoning succinctly, so they can see your reasoning.” 

5. HOW MANY PEOPLE FLEW OUT OF CHICAGO LAST YEAR?

“That’s a tough one. Unless you know the answer for some reason, definitely don’t just throw out a guess. This isn’t The Price is Right. Rise to the challenge of making an educated guess, and walk the interviewer through your estimations. So something like, ‘Well, I believe Chicago is the third most-populated city in America. If New York City has 20 million, I’m going to guess Chicago has closer to 8 million….’ Your answer could be wildly off base, but you’re being judged on your deduction, not your answer.”

6. WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE DISNEY PRINCESS?

“This type of question seems silly on the surface, but it’s really about values, so back up whatever answer you give with qualities. Maybe it’s Elsa, because she’s proactive and always working toward helping people, for instance. But if they ask what type of princess you like and you haven’t see a Disney movie since you were 8 or they ask which Breaking Bad character you’d be and you’ve never seen the show, be upfront. Say ‘I’m not familiar with that, can I have another program?’ Something you don’t want to do is name a character that’s not part of the show or, worse, accidentally pick a villain.” 

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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