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Generosity in the Middle of a Great Depression

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By StoryCorps, author of Listening Is an Act of Love
story corps pb.pngIn 2003, Dave Isay created StoryCorps to record intimate interviews between loved ones and friends. Over the years, the organization has collected and preserved tens of thousands of American stories, covering everything from the war in Iraq to the Great Depression. In 2007, StoryCorps published 50 of their favorite stories in the New York Times best-seller Listening Is an Act of Love. We'll let them take it from here:

These days, Americans are looking at the sluggish economy and bracing themselves for harder times. To many, it seems comforting to hear from those who lived through the hardest financial times this country has faced: the Great Depression.

The stockmarket crashed on October 29, 1929, but as Virginia Hill Fairbrother remembers it, the full effects of the Depression didn't show until she was in the third grade, in the fall of 1932—three years later. She lived in Parshall, North Dakota, a farm town where the winters could be merciless.

Virginia's family fared better than some; her father was a pharmacist who owned a drugstore in town. One day when her father was at home for lunch, a man drove up to the house with his wife and small children in tow. As Virginia tells her daughter Laurel Kaae, the young man told Virginia's dad that he had a job in Fort Peck, Montana—nearly 250 miles away—if only he could reach it by the next day. But he needed some help to make it out there.

Dad took them into the restaurant and had them fed. He had a friend of his who was a Ford dealer fill the car with gas and put on a spare tire. He gave this man a sack full of food that wasn't perishable and five dollars.
Twenty-five years later, I happened to be in my folks' home one night and my brother who was a pharmacist was in the drug store. He called and said, "Somebody just came in and asked to talk to Mr. Hill." This man was looking for Dad, so he sent him up to our house.
He came in and he had two tall young men with him. He said to Dad, "You don't know me, do you Mr. Hill?" He said, "I'm the fellow that had to get to Fort Peck."
On that day all those years ago, the young man had insisted on giving dad a watch that he had gotten from his father for graduation. Dad looked at Mother and said, "Florence-- the watch." My mother went and got it from where it had been all of those years, except on Sundays when Dad wound it. He gave it back to the fellow. The man said, "You were supposed to use this." Dad said, "I did. Every Sunday I wound it."

This man never expected to see it again. He just wanted his kids to see my dad.

To hear the rest of Virginia's story in her own voice, be sure to click here. And be sure to check outMonday's touching post about Sam Harmon, here.
Want more stories from StoryCorps? Pick up a copy of Listening Is an Act of Love today. (It makes a great gift!) To hear additional clips, visit the StoryCorps website or tune in to NPR's Morning Edition on Fridays.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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