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The Nine Lives of Socks Clinton

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Socks, the White House Cat from 1993 to 2001, died last week at somewhere between the ages of 18 and 20. He was euthanized due to cancer near his home in Maryland, where he spent his last few years with former presidential secretary Betty Currie. Socks lived an extraordinary life for a cat, going from homelessness to an honored position in the White House. He was a media darling and a spokescat for pets everywhere.


Socks was born in either 1989 or 1990. Bill Clinton's daughter Chelsea adopted Socks while Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Chelsea's piano teacher in Little Rock had noticed two stray cats living near her home. One of the cats jumped into Chelsea's arms and became Socks. The other cat was adopted into another home and became known as Midnight.


Socks proved to be a media sensation even before the Clintons moved to Washington. Shortly after the 1992 election, president-elect Clinton had to tell the press to leave the cat alone. Photographers stalked Socks on the lawn of the governor's mansion, and even went as far as to lure him into camera range with catnip!


As the official First Pet, Socks had the run of the Oval Office. He became a favorite of both the staff and visitors, including foreign heads of state. Socks was taken on publicity tours and visits to nursing homes and schools. The press took advantage of any opportunity they could get to photograph him. Socks even got his own fan club!

Socks first appearance in a book was in 1993, when his cartoon self starred in Socks Goes to Washington by Michael O'Donoghue. The short story Socks Goes to the White House appeared. Socks was the subject of one episode of the TV show Murphy Brown, in which he is inadvertently kidnapped from the White House.


Socks starred in a video game called Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill, designed for the Super NES and Sega Genesis systems in 1993. In the adventure game, Socks must cross obstacles such as spies and corrupt politicians to warn the Clintons of nuclear threat. Nintendo thought the game was too partisan, and the publisher Kaneko's US branch went out of business, so the game was never released.


An animated version of Socks graced the kids' page at the White House website beginning in 1996. He was joined by the Clinton's dog Buddy in 1997. In real life, Socks hated Buddy the intruder. The Clintons adopted the Labrador as Chelsea left for college. Although the two pets spent over three together in the White House, Socks never tolerated the dog. They appeared together in a book by Hillary Clinton called Dear Socks, Dear Buddy.  It contained letters from children to the White House pets.


When the Clintons left Washington in 2001, they decided it was best to separate Socks and Buddy. President Clinton's secretary Betty Currie was particularly fond of the cat, who spent a lot of time sitting or sleeping in a chair in her office. Currie had recently lost her own pet and asked if she could adopt Socks. So Socks went to live with Currie and her husband Bob in Hollywood, Maryland.


At Currie's home in Maryland, Socks continued to make public appearances, although with advanced age, they became fewer and farther between. In 2002, Currie took Socks back to Little Rock to lead the Christmas parade, in which he rode in a '67 Ford Mustang once owned by Bill Clinton. Socks was a big supporter of animal-related charities. He signed photographs with his paw print to raise funds. Socks developed thyroid and kidney problems in his later years. He was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and jaw last year. Currie made the decision to have him euthanized on Friday, February 20th.


See also: Five Fantastic Felines, Five Famous Felines, and The LOLcat of Death.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]