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4 Questions That Will Impress Any Hiring Manager in an Interview

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It’s something that gets asked by almost every hiring manager at the tail end of almost any job interview: “Do you have any questions for me?” Shrug it off or shake your head, and you risk looking like you haven’t done your homework or you’re not interested in the position, says Vicki Salemi, career expert and author of Big Career in the Big City. But what you ask is just as important as the fact that you piped up. “I encourage people to write down their questions ahead of time, because you’re going to be talking to a lot of people with a million things running through your mind,” she says. “Being able to look at a list helps you stay calm without scrambling to ask something impressive.” She suggests one of these:

1. WHY DO YOU LIKE WORKING HERE—ASIDE FROM THE PEOPLE?

That second part is important, says Salemi, because “the first reaction everyone has it so say people, but that doesn’t really tell you much.” When you take away their ability to default to great coworkers, you get more insightful responses. “Benefits” might signal that the pay is great, but the work is boring. “Flexibility” might tell you that micromanagement won’t be a major problem. And if someone really struggles to think of something, well, that might be a red flag all its own.

2. IF I WANT TO BE RATED EXCELLENT ON MY PERFORMANCE REVIEW AT YEAR END, WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO GET THERE?

“This is my all-time favorite question, because it shows them that you’re ambitious and you strive for excellence,” says Salemi. But the question can also give you great insight into what it takes to excel in the job—not just land the job offer. “I always remind candidates that you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you,” she says. Do they have a clearly articulated vision of what this role entails? Do the expectations seem reasonable enough? Challenging enough? Does the picture of an ace worker actually jibe with your skill set and interests?

3. HOW WILL I BE TRAINED?

Here’s another question that makes it easy to sniff out how disorganized or chaotic things are behind the scenes. Can the hiring manager describe a carefully mapped out training program? Are there mentors? Or does he default to “on-the-ground learning” and leave it at that? “You want to know the boss has put some thought into what happens after you get the new job,” says Salemi. “Even at an executive level, you might not get explicit training, but there’s going to be some structure in place to get ramped up on the inner workings of the organization.”

4. HOW DO YOU SEE THIS DEPARTMENT EVOLVING OVER THE NEXT FEW YEARS?

Here’s a sneaky way to ask about advancement opportunities without asking how quickly you’ll get promoted. Maybe the company’s in a period of rapid expansion, maybe there’s a big technology project on the horizon that will upend how things are structured, or maybe the department has been totally steady for as long as they can remember. All of that is great intel that you won’t get if you stay mum. “The biggest red flag is if they don’t seem to have any vision for the future,” says Salemi. That might be because they’re too busy scrambling to stay afloat in the near term to think big picture—rarely a sign of good career opportunities.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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