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Four Feline Photographers

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Yesterday I read about a documentary film that debuted at the SXSW Film Festival in which the cinematographer was a cat. The item jogged my memory, as I had posted about this same cat back in 2007. He's not the only cat who takes pictures, so let's meet several cats who record their feline adventures in images and video.

1. Mr. Lee

German engineer Jürgen Perthold has a tomcat named Mr. Lee. As tomcats will do, Mr. Lee disappeared as soon as he was allowed outside and didn't come back until he wanted to. Perthold wondered what he did all day in his South Carolina neighborhood, and as you would expect from an engineer, he figured out a way to find out. He attached a camera to Mr. Lee's collar and set it to snap a photo every couple of minutes.

The results were a fascinating look at the world as a cat sees it: Mr. Lee looked at other cats, birds, and other wildlife, and kept an eye on things from underneath various cars. Perthold kept working on the camera device. He designed a harness that would break away under pressure, which puts the camera at risk, but makes the gadget safer for the cat. He added video capability and a GPS tracker. Perthold sells these devices and kits if you'd like to make your own version. He is working on a version that can send a live video feed. The gallery page for Mr. Lee's photographs also shows some of Perthold's customers sporting their CatCams -mostly cats, but also a dog and cow.

While Perthold focused on the engineering aspects of the CatCam, everyone else was fascinated with Mr. Lee's photographs, which were first posted in 2007. Filmmaker Seth Keal produced a 15-minute documentary on Mr. Lee and his photographic activities called CatCam. It premiered last Saturday at the SXSW Film Festival.

2. Cooper

Michael and Deirdre Cross of Seattle were also curious about what their cat, Cooper, did all day, so they rigged him with a camera to capture what he observed. While Perthold the engineer focused on the technical aspects of the CatCam, the Crosses are filmmakers, so they were more impressed with the beauty of the photographs that Cooper came home with. It made them take a closer look at the meaning of photographic art.

"If my cat can take photos prettier than what we've taken, what is art? It asks a lot about the intention behind art and how it's interpreted," Michael Cross said.

Cooper wore the camera one day a week for a year. The project led to an appearance on Cats 101, a series on the Animal Planet network. Some of his best photographs were exhibited at the Urban Light Studios in Seattle in 2009.

Cooper's photographs are also in a book he authored along with Michael and Deirdre Cross called Cat Cam: The World of Cooper the Photographer Cat. Cooper branched out into cinematography with a collar-mounted video camera, which landed him a spot on the Animal Planet show Must Love Cats. You can follow the further adventures of Cooper on his blog and on Facebook.

3. Fritz

German artist Ramona Markstein purchased a CatCam from Jürgen Perthold in 2007 and attached it to her cat Fritz. After a few bugs were worked out, Fritz came home with a set of 200 pictures! Fritz only uses the CatCam twice a week. You can see photographs spanning several years in Fritz's gallery.

Fritz obviously has an eye for nature. Many of his best pictures are of interesting plants, but he also shoots humans and other cats.

4. Leo

Fran Hurcomb is an artist and photographer in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Her cat Leo wandered far from home on occasion and Hurcomb was a little concerned. She was looking for a GPS device to attach to Leo when she found Perthold's CatCam site. Leo was outfitted with the camera, and Hurcomb and her friends in Yellowknife eagerly awaited his return each day so they could see where he'd been.

Hurcomb said there were shots underneath cars, fences, and other hangouts of a cat. She would even hear about kids from the neighbourhood picking up Leo and smiling into the camera for long durations until both Leo's and their patience reached its max.

Hurcomb assembled some of the best pictures and exhibited them at the Down to Earth Gallery. You can see Leo's pictures at Flickr.

More Cat Photographers

In 2009, animal behavior specialist Dr. Jill Villarreal attached cameras to 50 selected house cats for Friskies to document what an average cat does when it's out and about. That project was expanded in 2010 when another 25 cats were selected to carry video cameras. You can see the results of that project in the film Cat Dairies.

See also: Five Fantastic Felines and Five Famous Felines.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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