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8 Library Cats

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Libraries are wonderful places for people who love books, and wonderful places for cats to meet book lovers. There are an estimated 808 documented library cats, including 301 cats who currently reside in libraries around the world. Here are just a few.

1. Dewey

Dewey Readmore Books became the official cat of the Spencer Public Library in Spencer, Iowa in 1988. Someone had left him in the book return bin. Dewey faithfully executed the duties of a library cat: attending meetings, greeting patrons, and inspecting every box delivered, until his death in 2006, just after his 19th birthday. He proved to be such a popular addition to the library that people drove hundreds of miles to meet him. Library director Vicki Myron wrote a book about him, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. The book is going to be made into a movie, which will star Meryl Streep. Watch Dewey in action in this series of videos. Dewey's story has inspired other libraries to adopt cats, but while he may be the most famous, there are many other library cats.

2. Squeakers

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The Willet Memorial Library on the campus of Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia was the home of Squeakers for nine years. Before becoming the library cat-in-residence, Squeakers roamed the campus for a decade. It is believed that Squeakers was 23 years old when she died in 2008. Squeakers would spend most of her time in her later years sitting in a comfy chair near the library entrance, so she could see everyone who came through the doors.

3. Browser

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Since 2002, Browser the blogging library cat has lived at the Pine River Library in Minnesota. He even moved along with the library to their new building. See more pictures of Browser at Flickr, and a video at YouTube.

4. Nyx

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Nyx is the resident cat at the Chesterfield County Public Library in Virginia. Nyx was born without eyeballs in May of 2008. She also has a stubby tail, possibly due to an injury. Nyx gets around by echolocation, meaning she produces sounds and is aware of how far they travel when they bounce back. Even when she is still, she has a loud purr. Nyx seems very happy at the library. The patrons and staff alike spoil her with attention and toys. Nyx has a Facebook page for her fans.

5. Belle

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Belle, the cat who lives in the Charles & Ona B. Free Memorial Library in Dublin, Virginia, may have to find another home. After three years of Belle having the run of the library, the Pulaski County Library Board discussed some complaints from library patrons about the cat. No action was taken at the time, but Belle fans became alarmed. They collected 787 signature (so far) on a petition to keep Belle.

6. Max

200max1.jpgMax achieved library cat status at the Hastings Branch Library (a branch of the Pasadena Public Library), without ever living there officially. Max had a home nearby with his owner Leah Thompson, but he visited the library so often that he was issued his own library card! Max would wait at the door until someone opened it and  walk in like he belonged there, from the early 80s until 1996. When Max stopped visiting, the library staff looked into his fate, and found his family had moved away. Presumably, Max found the public library in his new location.

7. Addison

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Addison lives at the Nash Library on the campus of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha, Oklahoma. Addison is more than just a library cat. She also is a fundraiser for Friends With Four Paws, an Oklahoma shelter for adoptable pets.

8. TLC

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TLC is short for Top Library Cat. He is the cat-in-residence at the Broken Bow Public Library in Broken Bow, Nebraska. TLC has it made, as this library has a working fireplace! That's where you'll find TLC spending his days in the winter months.

Meet more library cats worldwide with the help of the Library Cats Map.
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The companion to this post is a series on Bookstore Cats. See also: Five Famous Felines and Five Fantastic Felines.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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