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K-9 Comfort Dogs

12 Photos of Therapy Dogs Providing Comfort After Tragedies

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K-9 Comfort Dogs

One of the most remarkable things about the recent Boston bombings was how kind people were during the crisis—but gentle words and hugs aren’t always enough to comfort the victims of this kind of disaster.

K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs via Facebook

That’s why the folks of K9 Parish Comfort Dogs and other organizations have brought their canine friends to help those who could use some unconditional love right now.

Jessica Testa/BuzzFeed

You can read more about the project and the dogs involved, as well as see more adorable pictures of the pups providing their service, over at BuzzFeed.

K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs via Facebook

But this certainly isn’t the first time dogs have helped disaster victims deal with their traumatic experiences. K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs also visited the young survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Two of the dogs even stayed behind with the kids at the school, although they both visited Boston with the Parish’s other dogs this week since Sandy Hook Elementary was on Spring Break.

Perhaps because many of the victims of the Newtown shooting were so young, the event attracted more therapy dogs than practically any other disaster. 

John Moore/Getty Images

Therapy dogs were also present at the streetside memorial held for the shooting victims, which made the services easier for the children who knew the victims. In fact, during the service itself, attendees of all ages were given plush toy dogs to cuddle and squeeze during the emotional event.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Dogs were also brought in at the memorial for the Virginia Tech shooting in April of 2007. In this case, the dogs were provided with the help of Hope Animal Assisted Crisis Response, who was specifically requested by the Red Cross.

Ira Block/National Geographic/Getty Images

Hope Animal Assisted Crisis Response was one of the many groups to provide therapy dogs to help survivors and emergency workers in the aftermath of 9/11.

Dogs also aided New York residents who were affected by the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) sent comfort dogs, like Ladle, to aid the preschoolers of St. Peter's Lutheran School, Brooklyn, N.Y.

John Moore/Getty Images

While the deaths might not have all occurred at once, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars took the lives of thousands of soldiers. To help 500 children and teen survivors of these veterans deal with their grief, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors put together a 'Good Grief Camp' that, along with counseling and other services, provided therapy dogs to aid in the healing process.

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

While combat dogs may get more attention, the U.S. military also employs therapy dogs. Zeke here is a five year old labrador retriever who has a rank of Sergeant First Class for his services at the combat stress clinic on the Kandahar military base in southern Afghanistan. The government therapy dog program started in 2007 to help those serving in Iraq receive the psychological benefits that only animals can provide.

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Therapy dogs can even help crime victims better cope with their trauma so they can testify more easily. That’s why Abby works right beside her owner Sandy Sylvester, a prosecutor at the Prince William County Courthouse in Virginia.

Eager to support these efforts? Well, if you’re in the Boston area and have a kind, well-behaved dog, you can always get him or her certified and bring your own pooch to comfort the survivors. But everyone else can help by donating to the K9 Parish Comfort Dog’s Boston travel expense fund or to HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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