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Courtesy of Zoe Weiner

How One Writer Packed Her Bags and Took Off for a Year as a Digital Nomad

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Courtesy of Zoe Weiner

It’s 6 a.m. in Sydney, Australia, and I can hear the waves crashing outside the window of my un-air conditioned Airbnb. In a few minutes, the sun will rise over the ocean across the street, but I'm going to have to miss it. Instead, I'm battling heavy eyelids while I respond to urgent messages from my editor back in New York about a fast-approaching deadline. My friend sits on the floor next to me, explaining in a hushed voice to a client in Chicago that she can't hop on a video call because it is the middle of the night (and she is in her pajamas).

My work day started four hours ago, after a full day of traveling and touring. I have another hour before my shift ends. But when it does, I’ll grab a coffee, then head to the beach to take my first ever surf lesson. By tomorrow night, I'll be heading to Melbourne for the next leg of my trip. I have three stories due before midnight, and no idea when (or where) I’m going to sleep. But this is exactly what I signed up for, and every tired, cranky, over-worked minute has been worth it—even the ones that require being awake for the sunrise and missing it anyway.

After all: This is not vacation.

For the next 12 months, I’ll be living and working remotely in 12 different cities around the world through an organization called Remote Year.

WANDERLUST SETS IN

As a freelance writer, I spent much of the last two years hunched over my laptop in my tiny New York City apartment, writing stories I didn't believe in. Bored, lonely, and terribly uninspired, I'd scroll through Instagram and envy those who were bold enough to live the adventurous life that I wanted: climbing mountains, swimming with sharks, and lounging on beaches with names I couldn't pronounce. I’d always dreamed of packing a suitcase and buying a one-way ticket to the other side of the planet, but year after year I found some excuse—a job, a boyfriend, a lease—to stay right where I was.

So it's kind of perfect that it was on Instagram that I first stumbled upon Remote Year. "Become a digital nomad!" the ad beckoned. I clicked. 

Remote Year, I came to learn, is basically a study abroad program for grownups. It hosts groups of approximately 75 remote workers who work and travel together, living in a new country each month for an entire year. You pay the company $2000 per month (plus an initial deposit), and they provide accommodations, travel arrangements, and co-working spaces (or at least a strong Wi-Fi signal). Working, the company makes clear, is a key part of its mission.

According to a Bentley University survey from 2014, the year Remote Year CEO Greg Caplan launched his company, 77 percent of Millennial workers believed that flexible work hours would make them more productive. And according to job search site FlexJobs (which may, admittedly, be biased on the topic), 85 percent of Millennials want to telecommute 100 percent of the time. Pair that with Airbnb's 2016 Millennial travel report [PDF], which found that 70 percent of Millennials who feel they do not have enough time to travel would travel more if they could, and you've got quite the market for a program like Remote Year.

The numbers back this up: According to Remote Year, over 25,000 people applied for 75 spots on the inaugural trip. So, sending in my application two years later, I figured there was no chance I was ever going to be selected. I didn’t even tell my mom (or my boyfriend) that I'd applied.

But a $50 deposit and Skype interview later, I was in.

PREPARE FOR TAKEOFF

After I received my acceptance email, I had exactly 75 days to sublet my apartment and pack my life into a 40-pound suitcase. But first, I had to convince my employers that I could make a remote working situation, well, work.

Even if you're not jetting off for a year-long trip (maybe you want to work from home one day per week to cut back on commuting time, or switch to a night shift to complement your spouse's schedule), approaching your boss about flexible hours or telecommuting can be daunting. In order to get the green light, you'll need to present an appropriate, feasible plan to your manager, as well as a willingness to adapt. The last thing you want, after all, is for your unique arrangements to make their job more difficult. 

For me, this meant telling my editors I'd "do anything to make it work" (and meaning it), and committing to working U.S. hours—which, for my first stop, means working from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. local time.

Less than three months after I received my acceptance I had everything squared away, and I boarded my flight to Kuala Lumpur.

FIRST STOP, MALAYSIA

My Remote Year group, the ninth to set out, will spend the first four months of our journey in Asia, followed by four months in Europe, and four months in South America.

The big question is: What do I want to get out of this? When this year is over, I want to have a better sense of who I am and more clarity about what I want in my life, personally and professionally. I want to meet people who will push me, and learn about the world outside of the teeny, tiny existence I’ve been living for 25 years. I know I’m going to be challenged in a lot of ways, some that I can predict—like figuring out how to hold down a job with a 13-hour time difference, and learning how to manage living with 75 other people—and others that I won’t see coming. And as I move to each new location and tackle each new obstacle, I'll share what I learn with you at mental_floss. Because you don't need to buy a one-way ticket in order to change your life; that's just my story.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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