Original image
YouTube / Half the Sky Movement

5 Online Campaigns Empowering Women and Girls

Original image
YouTube / Half the Sky Movement

Women make up half the world's population, but they face serious challenges—for instance, one third of the world's girls are married before age 18 (with a shocking 1 in 9 married before age 15!). Here are five projects working to close the gap, by focusing on the needs of women and girls.

1. Half the Sky Movement - Games for Good

Where it comes from: Half the Sky was created by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn based on a book they wrote together. Their book chronicles the lives of women throughout Africa and Asia, and argues that one key to progress for the global economy is to unleash the power of women in the labor force. Following the success of the book, Half the Sky moved to a digital platform.

What it does: Beyond the book itself, there's a Facebook Game in which you play as various women around the world solving quests. At various points, the game illustrates why certain issues are important, and encourages players to engage in real-world charitable giving (...or you can keep playing for free, and eventually unlock a partner organization's charitable gift).

There's also a four-hour documentary series (it's streaming on Netflix) and a trio of simple mobile games targeted at the kinds of phones that people actually use in developing countries.

Here's a look at how the mobile games were created:

What it has achieved: I'll just quote from Half the Sky's website:

To date, supporters of the movement have donated more than $5 million to organizations helping women and girls; more than 1.1 million people have played the Facebook game; and more than 1,500 campus and community ambassadors have hosted screenings, held panel discussions, and educated members of their communities about the issues facing millions of women and girls and the inspiring individuals and organizations that are working for a fairer, freer world.

2. Because I Am A Girl: Plan International

Where it comes from: Because I Am A Girl is a project from Plan International (known as "Plan" for short). Plan led the drive to create the Day of the Girl, celebrating girls' rights and increasing visibility of the issues of child marriage and gender inequality.

What it does: Because I Am A Girl creates projects in developing countries that provide access to health care, education, clean water and food, finance, and protection from exploitation. You can view a map of the projects currently underway, and click on each to read more about it (each project has a blog, ways to get involved, and ways to donate). You can also start your own project.

What it has achieved: There are nine projects underway around the world, 4,840 promises made to stand against gender inequality, and Plan activists are stopping child marriages—sometimes on camera!

3. Shot@Life

Where it comes from: Shot@Life is a campaign to protect children by providing life-saving vaccines. By improving awareness about (and funding for) vaccines, Shot@Life is all about reducing preventable childhood deaths.

What it does: Shot@Life is mainly about education and advocacy. The main tool for achieving these goals is their Shot@Life Champions program, in which local leaders can receive training (and even minor funding) to help raise local awareness of the importance of vaccination. Here's a video diary from Shot@Life Champion Cindy Changyit Levin, as she prepares to visit a Congressional representative:

What it has achieved: 192,973 people have pledged to "be a child's shot at life," and Shot@Life explains the overall impact of vaccines for children on its website:

Vaccines currently help save 2.5 million children from preventable diseases every year. With your help, global vaccination programs implemented by our partners can stop the 1.5 million unnecessary deaths that still happen every year, and ensure that all children, no matter where they live, have a shot at a healthy life.

4. Chime for Change

Where it comes from: Chime for Change is a campaign focused on education, health, and justice for girls and women. It was founded by Gucci and partners with the crowdfunding platform Catapult. The idea is to help people connect with Catapult projects that make a difference.

What it does: Chime for Change is supported by major celebrities including Salma Hayek Pinault, Frida Giannini, and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Last year they put on a concert supporting the cause, and they have a film unit creating mini-documentaries, a storytelling platform to collect and share stories about girls and women, and a team-based approach to highlighting projects worthy of funding. (I hate to play favorites, but I'm all about Team Beyoncé.)

What it has achieved: As of November 25, 2013, Chime for Change reported on their progress so far. From that report:

To date, CHIME FOR CHANGE has raised $4.4 million to fully fund more than 260 projects in 81 countries, across 87 non-profit partners. ...

... hundreds of girls and women have received support and tools to empower themselves and their communities, including:

  • 75 sex trafficking victims who have been rescued, and provided with shelter and services
  • 30 young women in the United Kingdom who received mentoring to help them cope with domestic trauma and seek safety
  • 250 young global leaders currently receiving training in NYC to end street harassment
  • Victims of domestic violence in Southern Bulgaria, who now have a local Global Fund for Women branch supporting their needs
  • 340 girls who attended education workshops in India
  • 5,000 patients in Afghanistan who received healthcare and education for one month
  • 655 children in Brazil who received supplies to continue their schooling
  • 127 women in Cambodia who received literacy, life skills and job training
  • 600 people in Ethiopia with access to clean water thanks to two new wells
  • 120 girls who received scholarships to attend secondary school in Malawi
  • 450 young Peruvian women who were educated about HIV/AIDS and pregnancy

There's more where that came from.

5. No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project

Where it comes from: Launched in November, No Ceilings is a project led by Hillary Rodham Clinton, aimed at measuring the progress of women's rights.

What it does: No Ceilings is performing a global review of data about women, to identify where progress has been made and where gaps remain. The idea is that by determining where women stand today, it will be easier to make progress going forward.

Chelsea Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Melinda Gates. Image via Instagram.

What it has achieved: No Ceilings is still very young, so there's not much to point to yet. When Clinton announced the initiative in November, her speech included a clear explanation of why this project matters. My favorite bit was this:

So even though I’ve been doing this for a lot of years now, I am more convinced than ever we are right on the cusp. It used to be, when I would go visit a president or a prime minister and talk about women’s rights, their eyes would glaze over. But when I would say, “And oh, by the way, empowering your women and their economic opportunities means you’ll increase the gross domestic product of your country” – in fact, based on the new research we had, I could show them it’d go up this much percent in Japan, and this much in Korea, and this much in Germany or the United States – or I could say, “If you look at what’s happening in India, villages led by women have more drinking water and child immunizations, a lower gender gap in school attendance and less corruption, so it makes for a more peaceful, productive community.” We have the technology, we have the data, so we are at this turning point, and if we, the women of the United States, act decisively, we can make a real difference not only far from home, but here at home.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]