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The History And Impact Of The Red Cross

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In honor of the founding of the Red Cross on October 29, 1863, here's a closer look at the organization, how it works, and its greatest triumphs.

How It Works

There is no international Red Cross. Instead, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) oversees and approves national Red Cross organizations, ensuring those local organizations always live up to the committee’s objectives. The ICRC also handles a small number of issues that arise during international conflicts which require the oversight of a neutral humanitarian committee.

The International Committee operates out of Geneva, Switzerland (the building pictured above is its headquarters), and all of the people involved in this highest level of the organization must be of Swiss nationality. While this seems to be a little odd given the multi-cultural objectives of the group, the assembly believes the permanent neutrality of their country will ensure that no one ever questions the political motives of the decision makers. They say this way no one will ever feel high-level decisions affecting their country will be made by enemies of their country.

On the other hand, National Red Cross organizations are operated by people from all over the world. There are currently 186 national societies that are officially recognized by the ICRC; almost every country in the world has its own Red Cross society. These organizations provide emergency services, malaria eradication programs, blood drives, and local first aid training programs. The International Committee largely limits its services to investigating the condition of prisoners of war. Both groups help families get in touch with relatives who are separated and lost during global conflicts.

While other groups, like Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International, release their records regarding the conditions of prisoners of war, the Red Cross generally does not release their findings to anyone except the government involved. While this means they cannot push for more humane treatment of prisoners, it does allow them access to many locations that are off limits for similar groups. If the Committee finds that prisoners are being mistreated, they try to arrange low-key negotiations with the relevant government that will remain confidential.

History

In 1859, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman, traveled to Italy to discuss business with Napoleon III. On his way, he witnessed the Battle of Solferino, where 40,000 soldiers from both sides were wounded or killed. Dunant was shocked at the atrocities he saw and immediately set about helping the wounded soldiers who received practically no medical attention after the battle was over. In the end, he ended up abandoning the original motivation for his trip, focusing instead on care for the wounded soldiers. He motivated the local residents to help, too, regardless of their military affiliation.

When Dunant returned to Geneva, he wrote A Memory of Solferino. After sending the book to leading political and military figures in Europe, Dunant began advocating the creation of voluntary relief organizations to help care for wounded soldiers in war. He also pushed for international treaties to assure protection of these relief organizations.

In 1863, Dunant gathered other leading figures from Geneva to discuss the feasibilities of his ideas and how to best implement them. Eight days later, they decided to name the committee the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded.”

In October of that year, the committee held an international conference to develop measures that would improve battlefield medical services; it was attended by more than 30 representatives from countries throughout Europe. The resolutions adopted from this first meeting included the creation of relief societies, protection for wounded soldiers, and the introduction of a distinctive protection symbol for medics in the field. The symbol chosen at the conference was a white arm band with a red cross—the first official use of the Red Cross logo (although they didn’t start to use that name until 3 years later).

The following year, the Swiss government invited all European governments, the United States, Brazil, and Mexico to attend an official diplomatic conference regarding those resolutions. Sixteen governments sent delegates to this first Geneva Convention, and 12 countries signed the convention binding rules for neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and humanitarian institutions. The convention also defined two requirements for the recognition of a national relief society as defined by the International Committee: A society must be recognized by their own national government, and the country involved must be a party in the Geneva Convention.

Immediately after the Geneva Convention, the first national relief societies were formed in Belguim, Denmark, France, Oldenburg, Prussia, Spain, and Württemberg. Within a few years, almost every country created a relief society—including the American Red Cross, started by Clara Barton.

Major Conflicts

While Red Cross agencies dealt with a number of conflicts after their initial creation, the first major test of their effectiveness was during the first World War. Immediately after the war broke out, the ICRC set up an international Prisoners of War (POW) Agency. By the end of the war, the group transferred about 20 million letters and 18 million Swiss francs worth of donations to POWs in all affected countries. The agency also helped safely exchange 200,000 prisoners, allowing them to return to their home countries.

During the war, they also monitored the fighting countries for compliance with the Geneva Conventions and forwarded their complaints to the countries responsible. When chemical weapons were used for the first time ever, the ICRC fought their use immediately.

While the Geneva Conventions did not dictate that the ICRC should help civilian populations, the committee also helped residents who were suffering from the war. A year before WWI ended, the ICRC received a Nobel Peace Prize for its wartime work. It was the only prize awarded during the conflict.

In 1925, another Geneva Convention was held, and the use of chemical and biological weapons was outlawed. The committee also drafted a new set of rules dictating the proper treatment for prisoners of war.

When WWII started, the ICRC faced quite a challenge: getting access to Nazi concentration camps. It tried applying pressure to the country, but eventually quit pushing so that efforts could be focused on helping POWs from all countries. In 1943, the group finally achieved permission to send parcels to the concentration camp detainees with known names and locations. Because many packages were signed for by persons other than those to whom the package was addressed, the group managed to use these signatures to register the names of around 105,000 detainees in the camps.

(c) Benoit Junod, Switzerland

In March of 1945, the SS allowed delegates to visit concentration camps with the condition that the delegates had to stay in the camps until the war ended. Ten delegates volunteered. One was able to prevent the blasting of Mauthausen-Gusen by American troops, saving 60,000 lives. Unfortunately, this went against the ICRC’s neutrality policy and circumvented their authority, so he was condemned by the organization. They did not apologize until 1990.

The ICRC received a second Nobel Peace Prize in 1944 for its work during the war: once again, the only prize awarded during that period. After the war, the ICRC worked with local Red Cross societies to help provide assistance to the countries most severely affected.

After the war, another convention was held to discuss international laws regarding civil populations during times of war. After all of the conventions and additional protocols were added, the Geneva Convention treaties contain over 600 articles. In around 150 years, the ideas of a Genevan businessman have helped rewrite the acceptable behaviors of countries at war and have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, while improving millions more.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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