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Colbert Nation

5 Last-Minute Charitable Gifts

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Colbert Nation

If you're still shopping for gifts, there are plenty of deals on whiz-bang gizmos online. But we've rounded up five excellent ways to give to charity this holiday season. Below, learn how to get a goat for a family in need, help a U.S. public school teacher, or educate a child overseas. Best of all—you can do it online, right now.

1. Get Your Goat - Heifer International

About the Charity: Heifer International gives livestock to impoverished families to help lift them out of poverty. The Heifer system also asks families to "Pass on the Gift," giving the first female offspring of their Heifer animal to another family. This multiplies the effect of that first gift, spreading it to more families (Heifer estimates that this system increases the impact of the original gift up to nine times). In some communities, Heifer has traced 22 generations of livestock passed along from a single gift.

It's important to note that Heifer doesn't just hand someone a goat and say, "Good luck!" Each gift is accompanied by a year of training on how to care for the livestock.

The Gifts: While there are lots of options, my favorite is a goat for $120. Also fun: honeybees for $30, a flock of ducks for $20, or a camel for $850. (If you can't swing the full price for that camel, you can pitch in to give a "share" of it.)

2. A Child's Education - Save the Children

About the Charity: Save the Children was founded way back in 1919, after the World War I blockade of Germany and Austria-Hungary left millions of children malnourished. Save the Children works in a wide variety of areas, focusing on children's rights, and working in 124 countries around the world. Save the Children helps kids affected by malnutrition, lack of education, natural disasters, and many other problems.

The Gifts: You can help educate an orphan for $30. Save the Children also offers a goat for $50, a girl's education for $0.20 a day, or a bicycle for aid workers ($100).

Save the Children also has useful features like the ability to specify that multiple gifts go to the same family (for instance, two $40 anti-mosquito bed nets for one family), and the ability to send a personalized message to the recipient of the gift(s).

3. A Local Teacher's Project -

About the Charity: DonorsChoose is a crowdfunding site supporting teachers in U.S. public schools. Teachers post projects to the website, explaining what they need and why. Donors can choose what they like. According to DonorsChoose, “When a project reaches its funding goal, we ship the materials to the school. You'll get photos of the project taking place, a letter from the teacher, and insight into how every dollar was spent. Give over $50 and you'll also receive hand-written thank-yous from the students.”

Each project is vetted by the charity, and reports are assembled showing where the money goes. Check out the impact page for some amazing statistics; as of this writing:

Students helped: 10,605,488

Projects funded: 417,726

Teachers report: "94% of teachers said their funded projects increased their effectiveness in the classroom."

The Gifts: The whole point of the site is that you choose the project. You can search by category, by location, or even by a keyword. So please, just choose what you like. You can even give a gift card so your loved one can choose their own favorite project!

Fun Fact: Stephen Colbert is a Donors Choose board member. He frequently features Donors Choose on The Colbert Report, and spoke about his dedication to the project in 2009.

4. A Forest - Oxfam

About the Charity: Oxfam America works in 90 countries to combat poverty, hunger, and injustice. The organization was founded in 1970 as a response to suffering caused by the fight for independence in Bangladesh.

The Gifts: The Oxfam Unwrapped site offers tons of options, but perhaps the most impressive is the option to plant a whole forest for $500. That's 1,000 trees, folks. If that's too steep, a grove of "miracle trees" (moringa trees) is just $35. There are also many inexpensive, simple options, like 20 pounds of soap for $12. The site's gifts in action section has short videos showing how the gifts help people in the field.

5. Empowering Women and Girls - Catapult

About the Charity: Catapult is a crowdfunding site focused specifically on women and girls. The site breaks down what each project needs (the budget is listed right on the project page), and also encourages members to form teams to fundraise together. (Note: Beyoncé has a team!) If you're wondering why we need a site specifically focused on projects for women, read 6 Reasons Today is International Day of the Girl.

The Gifts: There are tons of options, and the point is that you can choose what suits you best. Some favorites of mine: open schools for brave girls in Pakistan; install 400 stoves in Maasai villages; and clean water to women and families in rural Kenya.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]