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11 Acts of Kindness in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

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SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters/Landov

Between election bad blood and ongoing hurricane horror stories, there's no shortage of negative news right now. Take heart—good things are happening out there. These stories from 11 Sandy Samaritans are sure to give your spirits a boost. There are many more over at the Hurricane Sandy Acts of Kindness Facebook page, so stop over if you have one to share, or you just need a lift.

1. One Hundred Cups of Joe, on the House

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference. Chelsea Cranmer went to the Wawa in Barnegat, New Jersey, to grab a coffee on the way to work. When she went to pay, she was told to put her purse away. “I was a little confused until [the cashier] said a man came in and bought 100 cups.” Coffee addicts know that sometimes a hot cup of caffeine is all it takes to improve your outlook exponentially, so this seemingly small act is incredibly thoughtful.

2. A Generator for the Next Generation

Tim Dubriske took his pregnant fiancée to Pace’s Steak House in Hauppauge, New York, to try to cheer her up. "It’s not easy being pregnant and having no electricity, hot water, or heat,” he said. As they left the restaurant, owner Jimmy Pace chatted with Tim and his fiancée and realized the couple had no power and no generator. Pace insisted that they take his and even followed them home to help set it up. When Dubriske protested, Pace replied, “it's more important that your pregnant fiancée stays warm."

“All this from a business owner to two virtual strangers,” Dubriske wrote. “That's probably the most selfless act I've ever seen.”

3. Good Karma at Kmart

Sophia Parracho Ciesielski was chatting about the storm with Allison, a woman she had just met. She mentioned to Allison that she had been putting five and ten dollar bills into the pockets of sweatshirts and coats before donating them to Sandy victims. Before they parted ways, Allison pressed a bill into Ciesielski’s hand. The bill ended up being $100. Ciesielski used the money to purchase some essentials at Kmart, where two more total strangers overheard her explaining to the cashier that the purchase was going to Sandy victims. The two strangers flagged her down before she left the store and gave her items they had just bought to add to her donation pile.

“It was amazing to me that just in chatting, two complete strangers wanted to help another stranger in helping complete strangers,” Ciesielski said.

4. Good Sports

From Kate Pepper, a volunteer coach for Central Regional field hockey in Bayville, New Jersey: "Our school district covers most of Seaside Park/Seaside Heights/Pelican Island/Ocean Gate and many waterfront homes. We drove out to Moorestown High School to play a state game which we lost,” Pepper explained. “After the game, the Moorestown team called us over and gave us sandwiches to eat on our bus ride home and gift bags with towels/makeup/toiletries/blankets/etc. to take home to keep or give to a family in need. Their kindness will always be remembered by our team. Thank you so much, you made our day.”

5. Sandwich Samaritans

Hurricane Sandy Acts of Kindness Facebook Page

Sandy Daskawisz-Ogilvie went to a BJ’s Wholesale Club in Levittown, New Jersey, to purchase a mass quantity of bread, peanut butter and jelly to make a quick meal for hurricane victims and volunteers in Seaford Harbor. She asked if any discount for such a large purchase might be available and, according to Ogilvie, the manager replied, “Take as much peanut butter and jelly as you need at no charge.”

6. Finding a House at Pier 1

While Jacqueline Robin was shopping at Pier 1 Imports in Carle Place, New York, she noticed a “done-up” woman with freshly-done hair and nails chatting with a woman wearing a fleece jacket, looking downtrodden and perusing unscented candles. The “done-up” woman was relentlessly asking the second woman about her situation: where she was from, what happened and if she suffered many losses. The second woman was understandably still upset and didn’t want to talk about it.

“I’m sorry,” the first woman said. “I'm sure you don't want to talk about any of this, but to be honest I haven't seen anyone from the south shore up here in Carle Place and I don’t know what to do. I have a house in Lido Beach with heat, water and electricity and I was hoping to lend it to someone in need. Please let me offer this to you, since I am feeling like this is the least I can do. Do you need a house?"

After tears and hugs, the second woman accepted.

7. Front Lawn Film Fest

During a crisis, a little bit of camaraderie—and distraction—goes a long way. That’s what Matthew Andras was thinking when he decided to use his generator to hold a movie night on his front lawn. “I pulled out a TV and my neighbor contributed an old sound system. We had about 30 people come out and everybody brought what they could. We set up grills and tables and put a couple of fire pits out on the lawn. Yes, it killed my grass,” he admitted, “but [for] a worthy cause.”

8. Gratis Glasses

“My husband is the volunteer fire chief in our town and his glasses broke during the storm,” wrote Jillian Augustin Wojtasze from New Jersey. “We had a warranty on the glasses but I was not sure if they were covered. Since my store in Brunswick Square Mall was without power, I had to go to the LensCrafters in Menlo Mall in Edison. When I walked into the store and explained my problem, one gentleman, Keith, took the glasses and started to fix them while talking to me. He was able to take out the lens of the old glasses and place them in brand new frames. I was starting to calculate how much it would be when he handed them back to me, along with a new case, cleaning cloth, and lanyard. I asked how much and he said no charge. He said it was the least he could do for a brave volunteer."

9. Neighborhood Watch

Although New Jersey's Angela Kessler Wilson and her husband had moved to their neighborhood three years earlier, they hadn’t really gotten friendly with any of their neighbors beyond the basic courtesy wave over the fence. “We just had a baby right before Irene last year,” she explained. “Luckily we were okay for that, but this time we had a giant pine fall and narrowly miss the baby's room just as the storm was beginning. We lost power and our neighbor next door looked up our phone number and called to ask what [they could] do. We said no worries, we'll just call a tree company in the morning.

"The next morning the doorbell rang and our neighbor showed up with a chainsaw. As he started taking branches off and cleaning up, neighbor after neighbor came out and helped take the tree apart and put it on our front lawn. None of us had power but my next door neighbor had a generator and ran an extension cord all the way across his property to ours so we could keep the baby's milk cold. We are now on a first-name basis with everyone on our block and we have a Christmas party planned. We never realized what amazing people live right around the corner.”

10. What’s 600 Miles Between Friends?

When a man from Evansville, Indiana, heard about the devastation in New Jersey, he loaded his car up with groceries—many donated from members of his church—and drove 600 miles to help feed a neighborhood. Stan Gregory bought a grill and asked for directions to the hardest-hit area, then got to work grilling and recruiting people, some who hadn’t eaten in three days, to come have a hot meal.

11. Two EMTs with Heart

Jack Vaughn of Easton, New York PA, had been waiting for The Call for months. It came the Monday afternoon Sandy started bearing down on the East Coast: a heart, just the right size and with his blood type, was available for transplant 75 miles away in Philadelphia. The elderly Vaughns couldn’t make the trip themselves, and the Easton PD was too busy preparing for Sandy to send an escort. Enter Tara King and Cory Allen, two EMTs who had already worked 12-hour shifts but wanted to do more to help. Dodging downed trees and street signs and nearly getting blown off the road, they picked up the Vaughns around 6:30 pm on Monday night and were able to get Jack to Philadelphia in plenty of time for his successful heart transplant the next morning.

Note: Some of the original accounts have been edited for clarity.

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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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