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9 Notorious Squirrels

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My husband talks about his days as a long-haul truck driver and the pet squirrel who kept him company (and startled many a driver at truck stops). His stories remind me of the many squirrels I've encountered in movies, television, and the internet.

1. Sugar Bush Squirrel

Sugar Bush Squirrel lives with Ms. Kelly Foxton in Boca Raton, Florida. Foxton took Sugar Bush in as a baby and raised her in the lap of luxury. An extremely patient and easy-going squirrel, Sugar Bush dresses in costumes and poses in specially-built scenes for photographs. She has her own calendar and a line of notecards and greeting cards you can buy, as well as a plush likeness that also wears tiny costumes. Her gallery is updated often with scenes from the news, like the Sarah Palin impression shown here.

2, Twiggy the Waterskiing Squirrel

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Twiggy was rescued after hurricane David in 1978 and raised by Chuck and Lou Ann Best of Deltona, Florida. Chuck taught Twiggy to water ski behind a remote control boat as a treat for his daughter. What began as a joke turned into a water show sensation. Twiggy's act has appeared in several movies and television shows. Although the original Twiggy has passed on, the act continues with subsequent squirrels trained by the Bests. See Twiggy ski in this video.

3. Tommy Tucker

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Tommy Tucker was a tamed squirrel who posed for fashion photography in the 1940s. Photograph by Nina Leen/Time & Life Pictures.

4. & 5. Slappy and Skippy Squirrel

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Slappy Squirrel and Skippy Squirrel were characters in the Steven Spielberg animated TV series Animaniacs, which aired from 1993 to 1998. Slappy was portrayed as an old woman and Skippy was her youthful and energetic nephew.

6. Rupert

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Rupert was the title character of the 1950 Jimmy Durante film The Great Rupert. Rupert didn't appear in many scenes and he didn't have any lines, but he was the hero of the story. The evil landlord hid his cash inside the wall, where Rupert found it and flung it downstairs to the poor tenant who was praying for money. This behavior continued every week until the house caught fire (which was also Rupert's doing). Still, there was a happy ending for all, including Rupert who became a circus star.

7. Scrat

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Scrat is a character in all three Ice Age movies. He is a "saber-tooth squirrel" who spends his time scrounging for food and pursuing the delicious but elusive acorn. Many people say Scrat is the only reason they sit through any of the films, so Scrat has also starred in several short films.

8. Secret Squirrel

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Secret Squirrel and his sidekick Morocco Mole were Hanna-Barbera cartoons characters in the Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show, which aired from 1965 to 1968. During one season, Secret Squirrel had his own show. He was a spy code named Agent 000 who used amazing gadgets to battle evildoers, a la James Bond. Mel Blanc did the voice of Secret Squirrel.

9. Rocky the Flying Squirrel

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Rocket J. Squirrel is better known as Rocky the Flying Squirrel, the smarter half of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. The cartoons were produced from 1959 to 1964, with June Foray as the voice of Rocky. Although he was miles above Bullwinkle the moose in intellect, most of their adventures were solved by odd coincidence or dumb luck. Rocky, unlike flying squirrels in nature, could propel himself to amazing heights.

See also: 10 Famous (or Notorious) Ducks

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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