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A UN Study Shows That Telecommuting Can Increase Stress Levels

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Working from home has its perks. Telecommuters report that their remote arrangement makes them happier, more productive, and less prone to taking breaks and sick days—plus it cuts down on commuting time. However, a new study suggests that these isolated workers experience increased stress levels, Fox Business reports.

The United Nations International Labour Organization surveyed workers from 15 countries (including the U.S.) to see how telecommuting affects those who’ve adopted the lifestyle. They looked at various types of remote employees, including regular, home-based ones; people who occasionally work outside the office; and highly mobile workers who work from multiple locations, including their homes.

The UN noted several upsides to working remotely (such as those previously mentioned), but they also noted that all three categories of telecommuter reported feeling more stressed than their office-bound counterparts. For example, 41 percent of highly mobile employees said they felt some level of stress, compared to only 25 percent of office workers. (The 25 percent stat may seem low to American workers, 44 percent of whom said in 2016 that job stress affects their health.)

Telecommuters may experience additional stress because they log longer hours; after all, working remotely often leads to increased availability. Also, when you can work from anywhere, at any time, it’s often hard to know when to stop—and when you don’t need to commute every day, it’s easier to squeeze in two extra hours of work. Workers can take steps to ensure that work doesn't blur with their personal lives, but it's also important for employers to respect remote employees' downtime.

When it comes to telecommuting (as for many things), a little goes a long way: People who worked from home “occasionally” reported positive health gains. A balance between remote and in-office work may help employees reap the best of both worlds, Jon Messenger, the report’s co-author, concluded. "Two to three days working from home seems to be that sweet spot,” he said, according to the AFP.

[h/t Fox Business]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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