Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philanthropy’

17 NOVEMBER, 2008

Playing Nice: 5 Pro-Social Web Games


Rice from Shakespeare, how to help cure cancer, 60 million ways spam helps literature, a first-person snooper, and solid proof you may be the wrong gender.

In their quest for a share of our increasingly strained attention capacity, many charities and nonprofits have resorted to some rather atypical methods. Including online games, which let people contribute to a good cause simply by playing. Here’s our pick of the 5 coolest, smartest and funnest charity-benefiting games.


You may recall this project from a while back. You may even have a slight FreeRice problem — the thing is positively addictive.

“The thing” being a neat little web game that tests your knowledge of various “advanced vocabulary” words SAT-style and donates 20 grains of rice to third-world countries for every right answer you get. Just yesterday, 72,724,400 grains were donated thanks to vocab junkies like ourselves, with over 50 million grains donated since the game’s inception a little over a year ago.

And the “game” is no joke either. Composed by professional lexicographers, it ensures maximum benefits for your vocabulary and aims to benefit people in the developed world as well by helping us sound smarter, formulate ideas better, make greater impact with our speech, score better on tests, and give better job interviews. The game even remembers your vocab level as you play, so it automatically adjusts the difficulty level to ensure you’re making tangible progress. There are 50 levels total, but getting above 48 is Shakespearean.

Help end world hunger FreeRice is a sister site to and donations go through the UN World Food Program. And while 20 grains of rice may not seem like much, there are millions of people playing. Together, it’s a chip at the world’s enormous hunger problem that causes 25,000 deaths per day, most of them children.

The idea, needless to say, is pure genius. Talk about symbiotic benefit. Not to mention it’s certainly a better (as in funner and gooder) timesuck than watching random people’s cats fall into toilets on YouTube.

Go, be all smart and humanitarian. And check out FreeRice’s extended web presence on Facebook, MySpace and Think MTV.

Word up.


Hooked on House, Scrubs or Grey’s Anatomy? Here’s your chance to make your contribution to medicine without the drama. fold.It is a brilliant game that lets your inner puzzle geek help advance key scientific research. How? You’re given a cool 3D model (which happens to be an actual protein structure) and you have to figure out the most compact way to fold it, competing against other players. That 3D model is actually scientists’ best guess as to how that protein may be shaped. Because proteins naturally take the most compact shape possible, finding an even more compact way to fold one completely changes any previous understanding of that protein.

Protein Structure Model

Why is this important? A protein’s shape determines its function. So by helping discover the shape, you’re essentially helping scientist understand how a protein works, which enables them to target it with drugs.

Plus, it sure beats poring over grandma’s Manhattan skyline puzzle.

via GOOD


Okay, so this one isn’t really a game. CAPTCHA, the ubiquitous anti-spam human filter, is more of an annoyance, really — spammers get annoyed that they can’t get their bots past it, and non-spammers get annoyed because, well, we’re not spammers and we have to waste time on it.

reCAPTCHA That’s exactly what inspired the guys at Carnegie Mellon University and the Internet Archive to put that colossal waste of humanity’s time — 150,000 hours of work each day, to be exact — to use. reCAPTCHA was born, a project that capitalizes on this human effort by helping digitize books written in the pre-computer (yikes!) age.

Here’s the tricky part about digitizing books the usual way — they’re first scanned, which turns each page into an image, and computer software attempts to turn the shapes of the letters into actual digital text. That’s called “Optical Character Recognition.” Which is cool, but it’s incredibly inaccurate.

OCR error

That’s where reCAPTCHA comes in. It takes words that can’t be read by a computer and places them in those annoying little spam puzzles, so that actual humans help decode the text. It’s called human computation, and it’s absolutely awesome.

Like any large-scale wisdom-of-the-crowds approach, the average of millions of people’s guesses amounts to a virtually error-free result. (There are, after all, 60 million CAPTCHAs solved by humans around the world every day, just in the normal course of web-dwelling.)

The project is currently helping digitize books from the Internet Archive and old editions of the New York Times.

So if you run a website, especially a blog, grab reCAPTCHA for your site. And check out this interview with reCAPTCHA founder Luis von Ahn on Wired.


When Boubacar Bah, a Guinean tailor detained for overstaying his visa, died in a New Jersey jail last year, human rights organization Break Through jumped on it with a rather unusual effort to raise awareness about the inhumane conditions of immigrant detention in the U.S. (We’re talking pregnant women being forced to give birth in shackles and HIV-positive patients being denied medication.)

Homeland Gitmo, a web-based video game, casts the player as a reporter seeking clues in the death of Mr. Bah.

It may sound hum-drum, but the investigation, the plot and the interface actually make for a pretty thrilling game. The reporter takes an undercover job as a detention guard and discovers things backed by links to real newspaper articles, court documents and other factual material.

This kind of first-person appeal brilliantly taps basic psychological principles for impact much greater than a mere article about the incident could have. To take it a step further, the site offers multiple ways to take action — finding your local Gitmo, speaking up online, and donating.

via The New York Times


The web has its fair share of funny-sounding names (Squidoo and Google, we’re looking at you), but GWAP actually stands for something, literally: Games With A Purpose.

The outfit, out of Carnegie Mellon University, designs games for humans that help make computers a little more intelligent. It’s like that “human computation” thing we mentioned about reCAPTCHA, which is no surprise since reCAPTCHA mastermind Louis von Ahn is actually one of GWAP’s founders.

Currently, they offer 5 different games, all based on a pairing principle that randomly matches players up and gives each partner various tasks. Check them out:

  • The ESP Game, which shows both partners the same image and asks each to guess what words the other is using to describe the image. Players win points for correct guesses. It’s essentially an image tagging effort, designed to make image search richer and more efficient.
  • Tag a Tune, which is similar to ESP in structure, but obviously uses tunes instead of images and asks players to decide whether their partner is listening to the same tune based on words he or she is using to describe it.
  • Verbosity, a Taboo-style game in which one partner, the Describer, has to describe a word giving clues to its meaning and the other, the Guesser, has to — duh — guess it. The game, surprisingly fun and addictive, aims to collect common-sense facts about words, stuff that’s strongly associated with a certain concept but wouldn’t be found in the word’s dictionary definition.
  • Squigl, another image-based initiative, in which players are shown the same image and each holds down the mouse to trace an object their partner is describing. They get points if their traces match. It’s a genius concept that aims to help computers recognize objects more easily by their shape.
  • Matchin, which simply shows players two images and asks them which one they like better. This one was the foundation of GWAP’s Gender Test, which promises to correctly guess your gender based on images you pick out of image pairs. (We regret to say it failed miserably on us, telling us with 70% certainty that we were the other gender.)

Tag a Tune is probably our favorite, party because we consider ourselves rather the musicologist types, and partly because music search is the least developed of the tag-based search genres and needs the most grassroots help.

So start playing nice and pick up a new favorite timesuck that scores you some karma points to offset the should-be-working guilt.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

24 OCTOBER, 2008

Photography Spotlight: Blue Planet Run


World-changing photography, or why the oil crisis is the least of our liquid worries.

The best of photography goes beyond visual fascination and stunning imagery, and serves as a moving call to action.

That’s exactly what photographers Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt do in Blue Planet Run, their latest project with the ambitious goal of bringing clean drinking water to the world.

And if that’s where you roll your eyes because the blue-is-the-new-green card has been played before, stay with us: The seat of privileged is about to get a bit more uncomfortable.

The book, which Amazon offers as a free PDF for a limited time, is a tumultuous blend of photography both stunning photography, chilling revelations and — ultimately — a call to action that puts the solutions to the water problem front and center, and each of us in the driver’s seat to change.

Here are a few factoids about “the other half”:

  • 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water. That’s 1 in 6.

  • Half of the world today doesn’t have access to the quality of water available to Romans 2,000 years ago

  • 1.8 billion children die of waterborn disease every year. That’s one child every 15 seconds, or 3 dead children by the time it took you to get this far in the post.
  • 4,800 people die every day of waterborn disease. That’s the equivalent of 11 jumbo airplane crashes.
  • 5.3 billion people — or two thirds of the world — will suffer from water shortages by 2025

And a few factoids about the kind of excess we Westerners roll in:

  • A single quarter-pound hamburger — just the meat — takes 2,900 gallons of water to make
  • The average American uses 100-175 gallons of water per day. And that doesn’t include agriculture.
  • 3,350 gallons of water are used to water the grass for every single round of golf — there are 16,100 golf courses in the U.S., on which 90 rounds are played every day. That’s 4,839,678,000 gallons of water. Supporting golf. Every day.

But because information is useless if it doesn’t effect change, the book ends on a hopeful note — Blue Planet Run Foundation was born, an ambitious hunt for solutions both at the individual and organizational levels.

In 2007, the foundation held its first real run — a 95-day, 15,200-mile race where 20 dedicated runners from 13 countries go around the world — literally — to raise awareness about the water problem.

Proceeds from the race go to the Peer Water Exchange, the foundation’s radical initiative to tackle thousands of grassroots water and sanitation projects around the world by revolutionizing the funding model and funneling it through a pool of NGO’s rather than an endless loop of bureaucracy.P

But perhaps most importantly, there are things each of us can do to alleviate the severity of the water problem. Because simple behavioral changes have a greater long-term impact than we could ever suspect.

Grab a copy of Blue Planet Run, even only for the gripping, magnificent photography. But, we promise you, somewhere in the 122 pages you’ll discover a drowning desire to get up and do something about it.

We’ve got a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

29 SEPTEMBER, 2008

The Genographic Project: DNA Testing Hits Home


Why paleoanthropology is cooler than you think and how to find the missing link with a Q-tip.


We’re all African.

No, seriously — this isn’t some charity slogan, it’s an evolutionary fact. And our DNA — yours, ours, Chuck Norris’s — contains a historical record of it. The big question, really, is how we ended up so scattered across the globe and so incredibly diverse as a species — 6.5 billion of us, speaking 6,000 languages, sporting all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors.

Now, genographer Spencer Wells is closer than ever to building a family tree for all of humanity. For the past couple of years, he’s toured dozens of countries tackling that great big question of origins in order to explain our amazing diversity.

And it all comes down to mitochonodrial DNA — the maternal ancestry component you get from your mother and your grandmother and so forth. Turns out, a single African woman, “Mitochondrial Eve,” gave rise to all of today’s mitochondrial diversity about 200,000 years ago. And just to prove your mother right when she told you boys were “late bloomers,” turns out “Y-Chromosome Adam” — the source of the Y-chromosome, the male side of the ancestry story — only lived about 60,000 years ago, a mere 2,000 human generations ago. Which, of course, is measely in evolutionary terms.

Watch Wells’ fascinating yet easily digestible TED Talk on it all.

In 2005, Spencer Wells partnered with National Geographic on a film version of his book, The Journey of Man. The NG folks became so interested in the concept that they offered Wells a 5-year partnership, dubbed The Genographic Project, with the goal of studying millions of people’s DNA in order to trace humanity’s migration patterns over history.

Here comes the cool part: You can order a kit and test your own DNA. At home. Then submit the results to the National Geographic database for analysis, not only finding out your own geneticgenetic journey but also becoming a little flag on the great big map of human geneaology.

So far, they’ve received results from nearly 300,000 people and raised over $8 million.

The whole thing is, of course, a non-profit and any money they raise, after covering the cost of the kit and the data processing, gets funnelled back into the project, mostly into The Legacy Fund — a grant-giving charity that gives money to indigenous groups around the world for various sustainability, educational, philanthropic and otherwise awesome projects they’ve applied for.

So go ahead, order the kit — it costs less than our college Biology textbook back in the day, and it goes towards greater things than the Barnes & Noble bottom line.

25 JULY, 2008

Friday FYI: You’re Richer Than You Think


How to instantly feel more fabulous and why not watching Goran Visnjic can save Haiti.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ever find yourself couch-vegging in front of VH1’s Fabulous Lives of… only to end up contemplating just how unfabulous your own life is? There’s help — because there’s nothing like some good ol’ downward social comparison to make yourself feel better.

Enter Global Rich List — just plug in your annual income, and you’ll get just how many people you’re richer than and what wealth percentile you fall into. We’re proud to say we’re the 173,043,479th richest in the world, in the top 2.88% on the bling scale. (Never mind we barely make rent.)

Even a minimum-wage American burger-flipper making $16,140 a year is still the 719,547,292nd richest person in the world, in the top 11.99%.

And as much as we enjoy feeling pimp, we dig the concept behind the Global Rich List — feel richer than you thought you were, appreciate your own fortune and share it with the less fortunate. The project is currently supporting CARE International, a global organization fighting poverty by providing families with the food they need to survive in the short term, then helping the communities create sustainable solutions for the future.

If you’re still not feeling rich, fortunate or generous enough, here’s some more food for thought — to help you turn it into food on some malnourished child’s table.

  • $8 could buy you 15 organic apples, or 25 fruit trees for farmers in Honduras to grow and sell fruit at their local market
  • $30 could buy you an ER DVD box set, or a First Aid kit for a village in Haiti
  • $73 could buy you a new mobile phone, or a new mobile health clinic to care for AIDS orphans in Uganda
  • $2400 could buy you a second-generation High Definition TV, or schooling for an entire generation of school children in an Angolan village

So: just how rich are you?