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7 Ways the Internet Has Been Used for Good

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It seems like every day you hear a new story about cyber-bullying, phishing or a new computer virus. But when good people get together on the web, it’s amazing what they can achieve.

1. Preventing Suicides

While you probably have heard stories about cyber-bullies pushing someone to commit suicide, there are also tons of stories about depressed people deciding not to kill themselves after talking to someone online whom they never even met. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about these cases nearly as often.

Despite all the trash talking in online gaming sessions, there is also a real sense of camaraderie and friendship. In one case, a teenager from Ontario called the police after one of his gaming buddies in Texas said he was thinking of ending it all. An officer came to the Ontario boy’s house and talked to the other teen over Xbox Live until he was able to earn the trust of the suicidal boy. Eventually, he convinced the teen in Texas to let him speak to his father, who reported that he had no idea his son was feeling that way and would do whatever it took to help his son get through this difficult time.

These sorts of incidents aren’t limited to gaming sessions though; one woman in Australia saved an English man’s life after seeing a post where the man said he would kill himself within the next 15 minutes. She spoke to him online for a while, gaining his trust until he gave his phone number to her. She then got one of her friends living in England to call the suicidal man and talk to him until the man felt comfortable sharing his location. When the police showed up at the depressed man’s house, he already had a phone cord wrapped around his neck, but had not yet tried to end it all. Police praised the actions of the Australian woman and her friend, pointing out that the young man probably wouldn’t have made it if the two hadn’t acted so quickly and diligently.

Even actress Demi Moore has been credited with saving someone’s life thanks to the net. When a woman Tweeted to Demi that she was going to kill herself, Moore tried to talk her into changing her mind. Meanwhile, the celebrity’s followers contacted the police in the area of the Twitterer and they were able to get to her home before she did anything drastic.


There are major online communities developed to help people in need. Reddit’s Suicide Watch has over 10,000 subscribers, many of whom offer valuable advice and help for those looking to end it all. And the “It Gets Better” project has helped thousands of students who have been bullied due to their sexual orientation.

[Images courtesy of Samantha Marx's Flickr stream and David Shankbone.]

2. Saving Lives

Internet users have also saved the lives of those who didn’t want to kill themselves, but couldn’t get themselves out of a dangerous situation. In January 2011, Robert Chambers, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, was gaming on his computer when his toaster caught on fire and smoke quickly started filling his home. Since he was unable to move quickly due to his condition, getting to the phone to call 911 was not an option, so instead he shared his address and asked others in a chat room to call for help for him. People from around the U.S. called his local fire department and it wasn’t long before Robert was saved.

In a similar story, Wales resident Peter Casaru, who suffers from spinal problems, found himself paralyzed one morning. With his cell phone battery dead, his only option was to ask for help online. After dragging himself across the room, and without being able to see the keyboard since he didn't have his glasses, he was still able to post an update on Facebook asking for someone to call the medics. Almost immediately, his friends and family responded and just before Casaru passed out from pain, the ambulance arrived to take him to a hospital.

[911 poster image courtesy of Tricia Wang's Flickr stream.]

3. Helping Victims of Crime -- While It Happens

Sometimes crime victims have found the net to be the best way to ask for help as well. In late 2011, a woman and her one-year-old were being held prisoner by her ex-husband. While she was unable to use the phone during the entire ordeal, she was able to post a plea for help on Facebook. A woman who had never met the abused mother saw the post and called the authorities, who found the victim and her child severely beaten, but alive, after four days of starvation and torture. Their tormentor was quickly arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, domestic violence, child abuse, forcible sodomy, animal cruelty and more.

Just this month, a South African carjacking victim who was locked in his trunk by the thieves was saved thanks to Twitter. While the police in the area are anything but reliable, the man knew he was at an advantage since he had his cell phone in the trunk with him. He texted his girlfriend, who then put the information out on Twitter, where it was picked up by a roadblock notification service with over 110,000 followers including a number of private security firms. Soon enough, the car was located and the man was saved before he suffered any serious physical abuse.

[Crime scene tape image courtesy of Brandon Anderson's Flickr stream.]

4. Helping Crime Victims After the Fact

Internet users have also come through to help crime victims recover after they have been victimized. For example, when a young girl had her 300-pound TARDIS replica stolen from her own front yard, Redditors donated enough money to get a new box built, complete with a chain and security camera to ensure it isn’t stolen again.

TARDIS fans aren’t the only ones feeling the love of the net. After the London riots last year, Aaron Biber, an 89-year-old barber, was sure he would have to shut down his shop since he couldn’t afford to replace everything that had been stolen or smashed in the ruckus. But his story touched the world and soon enough, a campaign to Keep Aaron Cutting spread across the net and raised $56,000 to help the barber get back on his feet. The donations were far more than Biber needed, so he, in turn, donated the rest to a local youth center.

Early this year, shocking photos were posted on Reddit showing an African man who had his face sliced open by a machete while trying to protect an orphanage from local thugs. The forum poster asked readers to chip in a total of $2,000 so the orphanage could afford a security wall. Within only 24 hours, the charity received 40 times that amount, $80,000. With all the extra cash, the orphanage was able to provide the children with bunk beds and start a fund to purchase the land where the facility is located so they will no longer have to rent the property.

Even when crimes haven’t been committed, Reddit has stepped in to help victims of cruelty that may not be illegal, but is certainly wrong. Perhaps one of the most heart-melting stories in this vein was that of Kathleen Edward. The seven-year-old and her family were viciously taunted by her next door neighbors after they discovered Kathleen had Huntington’s Disease. When the girl’s story was posted on Reddit, readers quickly started working to raise funds to give Kathleen a spending spree at a local toy store owned by a user of the site. Eventually, the girl received $19,000 worth of credit at the store, with any unused balance donated towards local children’s hospitals. As for her tormentors, 4chan went after them, posting all of their personal information on line and harassing the family until they formally apologized to Kathleen and her family.

5. Holding Animal Abusers Accountable

While 4chan might be known for their love of gruesome and sickening videos and photos, they certainly have a soft spot for innocent people and creatures being victimized. When someone posted a video on YouTube showing a boy beating up a house cat, members of 4chan tracked down the wrongdoer and reported him to the authorities, resulting in the cat, Dusty, quickly being removed from the home.

Similarly, the group was up in arms when a video came out showing a woman throwing a cat into a trash bin. The owners of the cat posted the video to the net to find out the woman’s identity. Soon enough, she was identified. People were so angry at her, she eventually went to the police, telling them she worried about her safety. Even so, she was eventually convicted under the Animal Welfare Act and had to pay $2200.

6. Catching Child Predators

While everyone may have a different opinion on Anonymous, pretty much everyone can agree that child porn is a bad thing. That’s why, although their other hacks were criticized, no one seemed to have a problem with the hacker group going after child pornography sites and their hosting services. At one point, the group even leaked stolen user info on over 1,100 pedophiles from one site and invited the FBI and Interpol to follow up on the info for leads.

Alt.Hackers.Malicious have also taken on child predators, even breaking into NAMBLA’s servers and disseminating membership information that led directly to the arrests and convictions of several criminals.

Of course, hackers aren’t the only ones fighting pedophiles around the globe. Perverted Justice is a group you are probably already familiar with, even if you’ve never heard the name. That’s because they’re the group responsible for all those Dateline pedophile stings. Unlike the hacker attacks on child pornography, members of Perverted Justice actually pose as children and talk to older men who are trying to solicit minors for sex. They then lure in the predator, helping law enforcement officers score an easy arrest while collecting ample evidence in the process.

7. Saving Weddings

Not all good deeds need to be so serious. Regular readers might recall the article I posted last month about the couple whose wedding was saved by Twitter donations after their wedding planner disappeared with their entire deposit. As it turns out, that’s not the only wedding that’s been saved by the internet. When one Redditor put up a post about how the owner of the mansion he had booked for his venue backed out of the deal only three weeks before the big day, other readers put out all kinds of suggestions. Eventually, he decided to host the wedding at a field at a nearby farm, as suggested by another Redditor, leaving the poster with enough savings to provide his guests with ample free booze, as well as two bouncy houses.
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Of course, between online charities, Kickstarter, free education lessons, support groups and other great programs, the examples above are only a few of the many ways people online have shown themselves to be altruistic. Have any of you ever joined a great cause online or been the recipient of such kindness?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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