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Not Your Father's Lodge: 5 Charities That Make Giving Fun

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We're all looking for connections to our communities—and to each other. One way to find that attachment is to join a civic group or charity organization. But not everyone can fit a weekly lodge meeting into their busy schedule, and others find that these institutions simply aren't what they're looking for. Thankfully there's a new generation of philanthropic groups that don't require a lot of your time, allow you to have a lot of fun, and still do a lot of good in your community.

1. Child's Play: Mashing Buttons for a Good Cause

Video gamers often get a bad rap. They're accused of wasting their time, some studies show they have violent tendencies, and if you ever log onto Xbox Live, one of them will probably call you an unsavory name within the first few minutes. The guys behind the popular gaming website Penny Arcade felt like something had to be done to refute this bad reputation. So, in 2003, they created Child's Play, an organization that donates money, books, DVDs, and, of course, video games, to children's hospitals around the world.


Aside from donating on PayPal or buying items from a hospital's Amazon Wish List, gamers can also raise raise money through gaming marathons. Two of the biggest of these fundraisers are "Mario Marathon" and "Desert Bus for Hope." The Mario Marathon is a team of four guys who play every Super Mario Brothers Nintendo game (currently there are 15 in the series) in one long gaming session broadcast live over the internet. In 2009, they played for 96 hours straight and brought in over $29,000. There's also the "Desert Bus for Hope" marathon put on by the comedy group LoadingReadyRun. These guys play Desert Bus, a spoof video game where players drive a rickety old bus that pulls to the right, on an 8-hour, one-way trip from Tuscon to Las Vegas. Needless to say, it's not a game you'd want to play unless it was for a good cause. In 2009, these lunatics played for five days and 16 hours, while raising nearly $150,000. If you want to get involved in the 2010 marathons, check out their websites, mariomarathon.com and desertbus.org, for more information.

Thanks to efforts like these, as well as the thousands of everyday gamers who donated or purchased items, Child's Play was able to raise over $1.7 million in 2009 alone. Not bad for a bunch of slackers.

2. The 501st Legion: Bad Guys Who Do Good

Just because you're bad doesn't mean you can't do good. The 501st Legion is a group of hundreds of obsessed fans who don custom, homemade uniforms modeled after the villains of the Star Wars universe, including Imperial Stormtroopers, Clone Troopers, and, of course, the big bad guy himself, Darth Vader. Often you'll see them marching in parades or at promotional events that could use a bit of the Star Wars touch, but one of their most important functions is to raise money for charities.

Split into garrisons in 40 different countries across the world, the 501st has helped raise money and generate publicity for organizations such as The American Cancer Society, The Salvation Army, Toys for Tots, and The American Red Cross. Aside from personal appearances, the 501st also sponsors online charity events, like the 501st TK Project. The TK Project features Stormtrooper helmets custom-painted by celebrities like the guys from Robot Chicken, artists who work for Lucasfilm, and even Jeremy Bulloch, the actor who portrayed Boba Fett in the Star Wars films, and Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca. Once the helmets are completed, they'll be put up for auction and the proceeds will go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

If you'd like to join these bad guys who do so much good, head over to their official website and contact your local garrison today. And May the Force Be With You (C'mon...I had to say it!)

3. ZombieSquad: Protecting You From the Zombie Apocalypse

When the zombie apocalypse comes, will you be ready? With the help of Zombie Squad (ZS), you can be. ZombieSquad is an emergency preparedness organization that uses the fictional scenario of a zombie infestation as a metaphor to help people get ready for a real-life emergency, such as an earthquake, tornado, or other natural disaster.

Aside from promising to keep the streets clean of the living dead, they offer seminars on living off the land, first aid, and are proponents of "bug out bags," a duffel bag you keep packed with water, food, medical supplies, and other necessities so you can survive if you and your family need to evacuate your home. While they can prepare you for a "zompocalypse," they don't wait for the undead to rise before helping their communities. Every year, ZS raises thousands of dollars by selling tickets to zombie film festivals, spearheads canned food drives for local pantries, and holds blood drives for The American Red Cross. To promote these events, the members of ZS will often set up zombie flash mobs, where dozens of people dressed as zombies will slowly shamble down the street and converge on the event location. Suddenly, the ZS will appear, dressed in their paramilitary gear, and help quell the zombie uprising. Nothing like a little shock and awe to get people's attention.

The group has 15 chapters across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., so if you're interested in learning what it takes to be a survivor of World War Z, check out their website to see if there's a local Squad in your area.

4. Keep A Breast Foundation: I

To bring their message of breast cancer awareness to young women, the Keep A Breast Foundation doesn't beat around the bush; they are often direct, matter-of-fact, a little brash, and really, really fun. The Los Angeles-based organization can be seen all over the country, hitting such popular music festivals as Coachella, SXSW, and the Warped Tour, as well as sponsoring art gallery auctions and other fundraising events. Wherever they go, they sell bracelets and t-shirts emblazoned with their slogan, "I Heart Boobies," which inevitably gets a laugh and the occasional surprised look.


The group's biggest fundraising project is the cast program, where famous and not-so-famous women volunteer to have their busts cast in plaster. Afterwards, an artist or entertainer paints the bust and it's sold on eBay to the highest bidder. Past casts have included Burlesque star Dita Von Teese, actress Kelly Hu (X-Men 2), Suicide Girls models, musician Katy Perry, Tila Tequila, and quite a few professional female surfers. Painters have included Shepard Fairey (of the Obama campaign HOPE poster), The Foo Fighters, Iggy Pop, and the bands Alkaline Trio and Newfound Glory.

If you're interested in helping KAB, head over to their website and become a member for $25, which gets you all kinds of swag, as well as advanced news on upcoming events, and alerts you to volunteer opportunities. They also have their infamous "I Heart Boobies" t-shirts, tote bags, and bracelets for sale, with the proceeds going directly to their educational programs.

5. American Mustache Institute: A Celebration of Facial Hair and Humanity

Salvador Dali. Burt Reynolds. Tom Selleck. The Swedish Chef. All of these men are known for one thing and one thing only "“ their mustache. At least that's how it would be if the American Mustache Institute had anything to say about it. According to their website's dubious history page, the AMI was founded in St. Louis—the home of the world's largest mustache, the Gateway Arch—to promote and protect mustached Americans. When they're not waxing philosophical about the advantages of a mustache, the AMI is helping to promote some of the many 'stache-centric charity events that have cropped up over the last decade.

Most of these charities, like the nationwide Mustaches For Kids, involve men getting sponsors for walk-a-thons or marathons. But instead of running 26.2 miles, they grow their mustaches out for a few months around Christmas before competing at a special 'Stache Bash party to see whose mustache is the "sweetest." Since Mustaches For Kids was founded in 1999, local chapters have helped raise over $1 million for children's hospitals and other kids' organizations.

Not to be outdone, the AMI has their own 'Stache Bash, held every year around Halloween. But instead of local mustache-a-thons, the Bash is really more about celebrating the "Mustached American" lifestyle. Buy a ticket and get beer and music all night long, as well as appearances by special mustached guests. The guest of honor for 2009 was John Oates of '80s rock duo, Hall and Oates. Attendees will also witness the presentation of the AMI's official memorial "Robert Goulet Mustached American of the Year Award." This year's recipient was Arizona Diamondback's pitcher Clay Zavada, who sports a handlebar any silent film villain would love to twirl.

While it's fun for the people who attend the AMI 'Stache Bash, the real winner of the night is the Challenger's Baseball Team, a local league for kids and adults with disabilities. Ticket sales to the event go towards buying equipment, uniforms, and trophies for all the players. A good cause, a good time, and mustaches for all. You can't go wrong with that.

If you'd like to setup your own chapter of Mustaches For Kids, head over to mustachesforkids.org. And if you'd like the AMI to help you with your own mustache-based charity event, visit their website or call 877-STACHE-1.
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Ever been to a charity event that's a bit outside the norm? Maybe you're a member of one of the groups we mentioned? Or maybe you're part of another not-so-serious group we should all know. Tell us about it in the comments below!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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