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10 Lovely Stories of Kindness from Newtown (And How You Can Still Help)

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It's been nearly a week since the massacre in Newtown, and Ann Curry's #26acts campaign continues to zoom around the internet. Thousands of people have committed to doing small kindnesses in honor of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As people from across the country (and the world) report on their acts of kindness, we decided to talk to the middlemen: people who are helping make those acts happen for the people of Newtown by taking donations, facilitating deliveries, and providing services to the town's families. Here are some of their stories, and how you can help, too.

1. Coffee for Everyone

Tom Cavanaugh is a 911 dispatcher in Northridge, CA. On Monday morning, he called Newtown General Store to donate 100 cups of coffee to residents of Newtown. After he tweeted the General Store's phone number, manager Peter Leone says that calls for donations came flooding in and haven't let up. "One person sent a food platter to the funeral home staff," and another ordered 600 teddy bears — one for the desk of each student at Sandy Hook Elementary for when classes resume in January. "It's like a 180 from the way people felt last week after the tragedy. Our hearts are so full."

Leone says that he thinks the town needs prayer the most right now, but if you'd like to help in a tangible way, he suggests ordering giftcards: "We can take care of them quickly, and people can use them at their convenience for anything they need."

To donate a Newtown General Store giftcard, call the store directly at 203-426-9901.

2. Make a Winter Wonderland

One way the Connecticut PTSA is helping students in the wake of the school shooting relies entirely on the assistance of generous and crafty donors: they're transforming Sandy Hook Elementary into a Winter Wonderland for returning students. So far, hundreds of handmade snowflakes in every shape and size have arrived at the state's PTSA office, but they're taking them all through January 12. Hundreds of updates about the project are floating around Twitter, with classrooms and parents organizing mass craft projects.

Making a paper snowflake is a very low-cost but significant gesture, and according to Connecticut PTSA President-Elect Don Romoser, this along with local donations for the coin drive are the most important to the school right now. "Current needs are being very well met," he said this morning, thanks to donations of supplies and cards of condolence coming in, so "the community is asking for monetary donations to assist with future needs and needs that are still unidentified." The funds donated to Connecticut's PTA will be "managed by parents in the Sandy Hook area as they deem necessary."

For more information on the Snowflakes for Sandy Hook project or to make a monetary donation to the Connecticut PTSA, visit ctpta.org or call 203-281-6617.

3. "Meals and goodies for anyone in need"

Image credit: DOrazio Sisters Bakery

In response to Ann Curry's call for random acts of kindness, one woman said she'd made a $50 donation to DOrazio Sisters Bakery, a local business in Newtown that deals in Italian sweets and dinners. Whether that tweet began the flood of donations or not is debatable, but co-owner Jojo DOrazio says the store received — and is still receiving — an incredible amount of money for food to be delivered to the families of Sandy Hook victims, first responders, and staff and volunteers at various local groups. "It's overwhelming," she said; the store took in "a couple thousand dollars just yesterday" and the donations are "still coming every minute." Those donations will be put to good use, too; the DOrazio sisters say they'll "keep going until the money runs out, probably in January or February."

DOrazio Sisters Bakery will continue accepting donations and providing "meals and goodies for anyone in need" as long as there's money coming in. You can help by donating a dollar or one hundred dollars, or anything between or beyond, to provide food for area families.

4. Security Blankets

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Project Linus is a beautiful charity that donates handmade blankets to children in need. The blankets themselves are usually donations from warm-hearted knitters and quilters, and dozens of people have tweeted about their donations to the project. But they aren't the only few; a Project Linus representative told me that the incoming blanket donations were so vast and immediate that there is no longer a need for blankets in Newtown — by Monday, more than 800 children had received a handmade gift from the charity "because the donations came in so fast, we were already there."

However, don't let that dissuade you from being involved. Project Linus, according to their rep, "always falls short on monetary donations," which allow chapters to "ship the blankets to children and supplies to areas in need." If you would like to help Project Linus with shipping and delivery costs, you can make a donation on the organization's website. And if you would like to send a handmade blanket to any other chapter, those donations are always welcome, as well.

5. Give Time

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In addition to all the monetary donations for goods in Newtown, many of the #26acts involved offering personal time as the town struggles to meet ongoing grief counseling efforts. The need for professional support will "extend well beyond January" when children return to school, and can be "supplemented by monetary donations," but will ultimately require feet on the ground, says a representative from Danbury Hospital Foundation Office. To offer your time or to sponsor the foundation, visit Danbury Hospital's site or call 203.739.7227.

6. Make Connections

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The needs of the Newtown community are varied and complex, and many may be as yet unidentified. While the local police station has "rooms full of teddy bears" and as each of these businesses work to fulfill the needs of Newtown residents, Newtown Parent Connection, the town's family services organization, is working in partnership with other local businesses toward naming and managing the rest. Assistance is being provided in every conceivable way through Parent Connections and their partners to grieving families and residents, an effort that requires both funding and volunteerism. As Parent Connection donations come in, a partner (who asked not to be identified) says "[they]'re earmarking funds for when children return to school in January, and in the spring we're planning to do something for the surviving siblings."

To assist with ongoing efforts in Newtown, the local toy store is donating 20% of their profits to Parent Connection, and 100% of that organization's funding goes directly into community efforts. For more info, visit the Newtown Parent Connection website or call 203.270.1600.

7. Send Words

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You probably haven't heard of Evergram, a startup that launched officially on November 1, 2012. The service sends secure, private messages (text, video or audio) to a chosen recipient at a later date. Evergram co-founder and Chief Product Officer Jeff Caden explains it this way: "When you disrupt time, in essence, by sending a message in the future, a lot of the same behaviors that we see in letter-writing — the tone and level of connectedness — are enhanced in a way you don't see in social media and the like." An Evergram campaign to collect messages of condolence for Newtown residents was initiated this week, and Caden says around 4,000 Evergrams have already been banked for Newtown families. Around 10% of those who sent a message also went on to make a donation through the Evergram site. (In a follow-up email, Caden says that in addition to the official Sandy Hook page, "at least one of the families has created their own Evergram for their close family and friends, which has also garnered an additional 1500+ messages of support and love.")

Though a letter from a stranger may seem a small gesture, Caden hopes the nature of Evergram's service will affect change, and not just in Newtown: "Our hope is that in a very small way that this may help over time to console some of the families that are going through so much grief right now, and in some ways to help the rest of our society help process the same grief and outrage that's associated with this tragedy. That's really our hope. In our own way, we're just doing what we can, just like everyone else."

You can send your own message, and make a donation if you'd like, at Evergram's dedicated Sandy Hook page.

8. A Safe Zone

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Save the Children, an independent organization that partners with local communities to provide aid and relief to children in need, set up a Child Friendly Space in a Newtown intermediate school after the group was called in by the American Red Cross. A representative says that this week the Space has provided at least 100 children with "a sort of safety zone for the kids, where they can play or draw or talk, or whatever they need to do." The service offers counseling for children and adults, and offers tips for grief counseling on their website for anyone in need.

You can help Save the Children provide continued efforts in Newtown and in needy cities everywhere by donating time or money to the foundation.

9. Give Blood

In a brief chat with a woman at the American Red Cross this afternoon, I learned that many hundreds of units of blood and plasma have been donated in drives dedicated to Newtown families from all across the country. "It was quick," she said. "The calls started coming in as the news was breaking. People were so eager to help." While Newtown's needs have been met (and far exceeded), a blood donation to the ARC is always useful and can help in ways money can't. If you're interested in setting up your own drive or would like to donate, she says "We always need donations. Call your local chapter and ask them what they need most."

10. Focus on the Families

Every person I spoke to over the last 12 hours has made it a point to focus their energy on the survivors, on the community at large, and on bringing positive efforts into the fold. Not a single mention was made of the shooter or political reform. As Peter Leone told me, "The town is a very tight-knit community ... and the people are very family-oriented, there are a lot of kids in the town, and we all just hope we're going to get through this. Especially with Christmas and the holidays so close."

As Tom Cavanaugh, the man who donated 100 cups of coffee, said in his interview, it's time for the town to heal; "we'll take care of the rest." The resources listed above can help the rest of us keep up with what Newtown needs, and if we all do one small kindness, we can make sure that those needs are met.
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If you're participating in #26acts or have been the recipient of a random act of kindness this week, please share your story in the comments!

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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