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7 Things to Do at Work When Everyone Is Out of the Office

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Most of your coworkers are out decking the halls the second half of December, but you’re not taking a vacation. Now what? You could celebrate the solitude with long lunches and Facebook marathons at your desk. Or you could do a few of these things instead. (Your career will thank you.)

1. CLEAN UP YOUR INBOX.

“If you’re like most people, all of those emails that you promise to respond to at some point get de-prioritized during the year,” says Alexandra Douwes, cofounder of millennial strategy firm Purpose Generation. “The holiday lull is a great time to go through everything.” To keep your stamina at its peak, alternate writing emails that require thoughtful responses with mindless tasks, like unsubscribing from newsletters you never open or responding to corporate surveys. Then think about what system you could set up now to prevent (or lessen) the email pile-up in the new year. If you live in Gmail, Douwes is a fan of this online Udemy course for Gmail productivity hacks.

2. INVITE A COWORKER TO LUNCH.

A skeleton crew at the office can be a good excuse to mix up your usual routine and socialize with someone new at the office. “Aim to make a new work friend with one of the other people there,” says Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert and author of I Know How She Does It and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. “Building tighter work relationships is associated with being more happy over the long run,” she says. And it can come in handy the next time you’re in a work crunch and need more people to pitch in.

3. UPDATE YOUR MENTORS.

Just because you don’t have a formal mentor doesn’t mean you should skip this step. “I don’t have any formal mentors,” Douwes points out. “But there are several people who have a vested interest in my professional pursuits and who have mentored or sponsored me at some point throughout my career.” The relative calm at the office this time of year is a great opportunity to follow through on sending them a quick life update: what you’ve been working on, what you’ve learned, what challenges you’ve faced. The holiday season is such a flurry of cards and family newsletters that an email or handwritten note won’t seem out of the blue.

4. WORK IN AIRPLANE MODE.

With coworkers and industry contacts out of the office, you’re probably getting far fewer emails each day. That can be a huge boon to your focus—so use it to your advantage by staying out of your inbox for large chunks of time, says Vanderkam. “See if you can be off for 90 minutes before checking your inbox,” she says. “You’ll likely make headway on projects you’ve been putting off for months.” And seeing how much more productive you are when you don’t toggle over to your inbox every two seconds might convince you to carry the habit of time-blocking into the New Year.

5. SET CAREER GOALS.

We’re all promising to lose five pounds and exercise more in our personal lives. But what about setting some work resolutions for 2017? “The holiday lull is a great time to reflect on the year ahead,” says Douwes. Think about what skills you want to gain or milestones you want to achieve in the next 12 months, then brainstorm a few concrete steps you’ll take to make them happen. Don’t just make this a mental exercise—jot it down. A study at Dominican University found that people who wrote out goals were significantly more likely to achieve them than participants who merely thought about their goals. Telling a friend increased follow-through even more, as did sharing regular updates with their pal.

If thinking of a career resolution makes you draw a blank, check out these five questions Douwes recommends everyone ask themselves at the beginning of each year.

6. DUST OFF YOUR RESUME.

Even if you’re not desperately seeking a new gig, the December lull can be a good time to freshen up your application materials so you’re ready to pounce if the right position opens up (or work hits a rough patch in the new year). Update and proofread your resume, then revamp your LinkedIn profile. In October, LinkedIn rolled out a new feature, called Open Candidates, that lets you signal to recruiters that you’re open to a new position—without broadcasting that news to your boss. (Just go to the Preferences tab and turn the Open Candidates feature on.) “The slow time over the holidays can also give you a chance to do some informational interviews,” says Vanderkam. Remember, HR teams that are in the office probably have more open calendars, too.

7. TAKE ON A STRETCH OPPORTUNITY.

Last year, Douwes used the December slow period to finally write a white paper that she’d been trying to write for months. “I’d never had enough time to sit down and finish it, because the day-to-day hustle and client requests got in the way,” she says. Your to-do list likely has similar stretch projects or things you’ve thought of doing throughout the year—and now you might have the focus and quiet to tackle them. Even covering for a different coworker than usual can help you stretch, says Vanderkam. “It’s easy to cover for a colleague who does similar work as you do, but cross-training on a different type of job lets you learn new skills and see what you might be interested in trying over the long haul.”

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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