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WritersandCats.Wordpress.com

11 Writers Who Really Loved Cats

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WritersandCats.Wordpress.com

Writers are sometimes stern and cold at heart—introverts who escape into their own solitary world, away from outward distractions that would somehow muddle their extraordinary work. Other times, writers just need a friend. And while they say that a dog is a man's best friend, these writers each found solace in another four-legged companion.

1. T.S. Eliot

Aside from peppering his high Modernist poetry with allusions to feline friends, Eliot wrote a book of light verse called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of 15 poems, dedicated to his godchildren, regarding the different personalities and eccentricities of cats. Names like Old Deuteronomy, the Rum Tum Tugger, and Mr. Mistoffelees should be familiar to people all around the world—the characters and poems were the inspiration for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running Broadway musical, Cats. Later publications of Old Possum's included illustrations by noted artist Edward Gorey—himself an avid cat lover!

2. Ernest Hemingway

JFK Library

Hemingway and his family initially became infatuated with cats while living at Finca Vigía, their house in Cuba. During the writer's travels, he was gifted a six-toed (or polydactyl) cat he named Snowball. Hemingway liked the little guy so much that in 1931, when he moved into his now-famous Key West home, he let Snowball run wild, creating a small colony of felines that populated the grounds. Today, some 40 to 50 six-toed descendants of Snowball are still allowed to roam around the house. Polydactyl felines are sometimes called “Hemingway Cats.”

3. William S. Burroughs

Big Cartel

Burroughs is known for his wild, drug-induced writings, but he had a softer side as well—especially for his cats. He penned an autobiographical novella, The Cat Inside, about the cats he owned throughout his life, and the final journal entry Burroughs wrote before he died referred to the pure love he had for his four pets:

“Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner, and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats present and past. Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”

4. Mark Twain

Twain Quotes

The great humorist and man of American letters was also a great cat lover. When his beloved black cat Bambino (above) went missing, Twain took out an advertisement in the New York American offering a $5 reward to return the missing cat to his house at 21 5th Avenue in New York City. It described Bambino as “Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.”

5. Samuel Johnson

Wikimedia Commons

Known to be a general cat lover during his life, this 18th century jack-of-all-trades was immortalized in James Boswell’s proto-biography The Life of Samuel Johnson. In the text, Boswell writes of Johnson’s cat, Hodge, saying, “I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge.” Although Boswell was not a fan, Johnson called Hodge “A very fine cat indeed.” Hodge is immortalized, with his oysters, with a statue of his likeness that stands outside Johnson’s house at 17 Gough Square in London.

6. William Butler Yeats

T for Tout

Though not overt, Yeats’ love for cats can be found in poems like “The Cat and the Moon,” where he uses the image of a cat to represent himself and the image of the moon to represent his muse Maude Gonne, a high society-born feminist and sometime actress who inspired the poet throughout his life. The poem references Gonne’s cat named Minnaloushe, who sits and stares at the changing moon. Yeats metaphorically transforms himself into the cat longing for his love that is indifferent to him, and the heartsick feline poet wonders whether Gonne will ever change her mind. Too bad for Yeats—Maude Gonne never agreed to marry him, despite the fact that he asked for her hand in marriage four separate times!

7. Patricia Highsmith

Cultural Cat

She doesn’t have the friendliest literary reputation around—she once said “my imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people”—but The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train author Patricia Highsmith nevertheless found a perfect way to let her imagination function with her many four-legged companions. She did virtually everything with her cats—she wrote next to them, she ate next to them, and she even slept next to them. She kept them by her side throughout her life until her death at her home in Locarno, Switzerland in 1995.

8. Charles Dickens

Slate

One of most important and influential writers in history, Charles Dickens once said, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?” He would sit entranced for hours while writing, but when his furry friends needed some attention, they were notorious for extinguishing the flame on his desk candle. In 1862, he was so upset after the death of his favorite cat, Bob, that he had the feline’s paw stuffed and mounted to an ivory letter opener. He had the opener engraved saying, “C.D., In memory of Bob, 1862” so he could have a constant reminder of his old friend. The letter opener is now on display at the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library.

9. Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

The author of American Gods and The Sandman kept regular updates on his blog of the everyday eccentricities of the group of cats—including Hermione, Pod, Zoe, Princess, and Coconut—that he kept at his house. Though he hasn’t written much about them recently, the love and affection that come across in the posts from 2010 and earlier show someone who is absolutely an animal lover in all respects.

10. William Carlos Williams

Wolf Eyebrows

Imagist poet William Carlos Williams also worked as a doctor to supplement his writing career, which would eventually culminate in a 1949 National Book Award for Poetry and a posthumously awarded 1963 Pulitzer Prize. His direct style tried to capture the essence of small moments in everyday life, and it’s no wonder he uses a cat to conjure a simple scene in his poem entitled “Poem (As the Cat)”:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty
flower pot

11. Raymond Chandler

Venture Galleries

Chandler had an immense influence on detective fiction and came to define the tenets of hard-boiled noir. He used femme fatales, twisting plots, and whip-cracking wordplay in his evocative classics starring the detective Philip Marlowe, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. But it wasn’t all serious business for Chandler because—you guessed it—he really loved cats. His cat Taki gave him endless enjoyment, but also occasionally got on his nerves. Here’s a passage from a letter Chandler wrote to a friend about Taki:

“Our cat is growing positively tyrannical. If she finds herself alone anywhere she emits blood curdling yells until somebody comes running. She sleeps on a table in the service porch and now demands to be lifted up and down from it. She gets warm milk about eight o'clock at night and starts yelling for it about 7.30.”

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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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