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Changing the Conversation to Poverty

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Once a year, BlogActionDay.org gets thousands of blogs big and small to unite and talk about one issue. This year's conversation is on poverty. Because mental_floss has a soft spot for smart guerilla marketing campaigns (and especially those with a social bent), I thought it might be interesting to showcase how various ads have forced people to confront issues of poverty. Here are a few of my favorites from Ads of the World.

1. Garbage Pail Art

poverty.nutrition.jpg pov.bobbin.jpg

I know I rarely think about street-side trash bins doubling as food sources for those in need, but this silverware setting and the nutrition facts label are such smart and simple ways to recast things we take for granted in a different light. Staring at both of them made me want to raid my pantry and give to a food bank.

2. Grate Food

pov.israeli food banks.jpg The Israeli Food Bank spotlighted the issue of homelessness in a similarly unique way, by placing dishware in sewer grates. While the print campaign used plain dishes, the ones actually used on Israeli streets were printed with messages. Apparently, the campaign confronted citizens with the issue and forced them to rethink the staggering numbers of homeless in Israel in recent years.

3. Putting the Spotlight on the Homeless

pov.testcard.jpgWhile the first two sets of campaigns definitely talk around homelessness through the hunger issue, the one here is pretty direct. I'm not sure whether confronting clientele in this country with a tabletop tent (left) and such a startling image of abject poverty would be good for business, but it certainly got the point across in rich coffee shops in Mumbai: that poor children are inhabiting places you can't even imagine.

pov.tent3.jpgPerhaps one of the most effective campaigns in terms of getting a reaction to the homeless issue was this one in France, which we've written about before. Here's the recap: In late 2005, distributed 300 tents to destitute Parisians sleeping outdoors. Equipped with the rapid-deploying tents (which didn't require poles or pins), the homeless gathered in small groups of eight to 10 along the Quai d'Austerlitz and the Canal Saint-Martin. The prefab shelter, which bore the Médecins du Monde logo, drew immediate attention to the number of homeless people in the area and provoked such incredible public outrage that the city was forced to act. A rare off-season government session was convened, and officials admitted that Paris' homeless shelters were vastly overcrowded. They immediately announced the allocation of nearly $10 million for emergency housing.Médecins du Monde

4. An Ad with Legs

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As hard as the table tent campaign was to look at above, I found this one even more heartbreaking. The group, Jaipurfoot, helps indigent people who've lost limbs or had amputations get artificial limbs and prosthetics at no cost. The innovative signs always start from the shorts up and are placed on trees and poles around the city.

5. A Campaign for Change

mccann-domund-postcard.jpgI thought this Peruvian ad to get people to contribute to a hunger campaign was absolute genius. The whole goal of the campaign was to collect small change from people at grocery stores, so while they were waiting in line, clerks would hand them these scratch off cards. (The cards show a scrawny stick figure, and when scratched off make the person full.) But once people had the coins out, they figured they might as well donate them to the cause. According to McCann, the 2-day initiative in Peru achieved the biggest donation amount in the entire history of the Domund hunger fund's existence.

Of course, if you're looking to make your own small contribution in the fight against poverty, BlogActionDay has a few ideas, including donating to Kiva.org, the microloan institution where you can make as little as $25 loans to small businesses around the world. The goal is for them to pay you back with interest, and then for you to reseed that cash into another small business, if you're willing.

If you don't have time or cash to spare, John Breen has miraculously made that possible as well through his webpages TheHungerSite and FreeRice.com. While the first simply has you click a button to contribute food (the cost is covered by the advertising banners on there), the second is a trivia game that helps build your vocabulary as you win rice for the needy. It's an ingenious concept, and all of the rice is distributed through the UN's World Food Programme. In any case, all of this is more to make you think about the issue than anything else. I know just looking up all of these ads has made me want to give; I'm curious how the day will change others.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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