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How to Feed the Hungry While Trick-or-Treating

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Halloween is coming! While your kids are collecting candy to binge on, here are five ways they can also help feed the hungry.

1. Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF

UNICEF collection boxes have been part of the trick-or-treating scene since 1950. UNICEF has a Trick-or-Treat website describing the program, and showing its impact over six decades. Since 1950, kids have raised more than $170 million to support UNICEF; in 2012 alone, kids raised $3.2 million! In turn, UNICEF saves and improves kids' lives around the world, providing improved nutrition and water, health care, education, and more.

Although it's too late to order a UNICEF box by mail, you can make your own (printable PDF), or even hold a fundraising party—you just send in the money (printable PDF) after collecting it. For more on the program, check out their resources page and start fundraising!

For a healthy dose of nostalgia, check out this video explaining the 60-year history of the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF program:

And if you're a K-6 teacher, you can get in on the UNICEF Trick-or-Treat School Challenge, which features cash grants for your classroom and teacher trips overseas.

2. We Scare Hunger

We Scare Hunger is an initiative of Free the Children. Kids in North America and the U.K. collect canned goods and other non-perishable food, then donate them to local food banks to help people in their communities. You can sign up to participate, either as an individual or a group. For more resources like lesson plans and how-to guides, visit this page and scroll down to the "We Scare Hunger Resources" section, then select your country.

And here's a brief video from their drive in 2009, back when the program was called "Halloween for Hunger":

3. Donate to Your Local Food Bank

Many communities organize food drives around Halloween. In Detroit, one family collects food every Halloween to support their local food bank. To find your local food bank, use Feeding America's Food Bank Locator and donate food or cash on your own (cash is often a much more effective donation; food banks can then buy food in bulk). You can also check out your local newspaper to find events in your area.

I consulted the Oregon Food Bank (my local food bank) about effective strategies for giving during the Halloween season. A staffer suggested that younger kids may have trouble connecting the concept of a monetary donation with the food it can buy. One strategy to connect those concepts is to put aside one coin (penny, nickel, dime, or quarter) for each piece of candy the child receives in his or her bag during trick-or-treating. Counting these coins out as a "One for me, one for you" donation after the trick-or-treating session, and then having an adult make the donation, can be a meaningful way to help kids make this connection between giving and receiving. (Again, you can locate a local food bank through Feeding America.)

4. Play Free Rice

Although it's not specifically Halloween-themed, the Free Rice game is both a vocabulary builder and a way to donate food through the World Food Programme. In the seven-year history of the site, Free Rice has donated 98 billion grains of rice, and keeps a running tally of grains donated per month, year, and day.

5. Donate to Fight Malnutrition

While Halloween is a time of abudance for many kids, it's also a moment to reflect on the problem of malnutrition around the world. Getting proper nutrition to young children is crucial in ensuring a healthy life, and there are lots of things we can do about it. As a parent, a simple way to help is to donate animals through Heifer International. Heifer's mission is to end hunger and poverty, and they work by giving livestock (think cows, chickens, and so on) along with training for farmers to make the most of these animals. You can give a gift as a family, and even pick your favorite animal(s) to give. (Some are surprisingly inexpensive, such as the flock of ducks for $20). Bonus Halloween tip: if you need a last-minute costume idea, why not go as an animal—and then donate that animal to someone in need?

Here's friend of mental_floss Alton Brown explaining how Heifer International works:

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]