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Erin McCarthy

10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Cat Owner

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Erin McCarthy

Studies have shown that just watching cat videos on the internet can boost a person's energy and create positive emotions—so it's no surprise that actual cat ownership has a number of benefits. Here are a few.

1. OWNING A CAT IS BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT.

If you're worried about your carbon footprint, it’s better to own a cat than a dog. A 2009 study found that the resources needed to feed a dog over the course of its life create the same eco-footprint as that of a Land Cruiser. Meanwhile, cats—which eat less in general and are more likely to eat fish than corn- or beef-flavored products—only have the approximate carbon footprint of a small hatchback.

2. THEY'LL HELP YOU COPE ...

Losing a loved one is incredibly painful, but one of the best ways of coping is to own a pet. Cats have been shown to help people get over their loss more quickly, and show less physical symptoms of pain, like crying. Despite the fact that they are only animals, cats serve as a social support during difficult times. People in mourning report talking to their pet to work out their feelings, since it is often easier to talk to something that won’t respond and can’t judge than to another human being.

3. ... AND FIND A SIGNIFICANT OTHER.

If you’re a single guy and you can’t seem to get a date, get a cat! A British poll found that 82 percent of women agreed they are more attracted to men who like animals. And while having a dog will do wonders for your dating life, a whopping 90 percent of single women said that men who own a cat are “nicer” than other guys. Listing that you own a cat on your dating profile could do wonders for the number of responses you get—but remember, a cat is for life, not just until you find a partner.

4. CAT OWNERS ARE SMART.

A 2010 survey of British pet owners by the University of Bristol found that people who owned cats were more likely to have college degrees than their dog loving counterparts. In 2014, a researcher in Wisconsin surveyed 600 college students and found that cat owners were actually more intelligent as well. (But it's probably not the cat itself making the owner smarter: The researchers conducting the Bristol survey said that smarter people tend to work longer hours, and since cats require less attention than dogs, they are a better choice for the busy intellectual.)

5. YOU'LL HAVE A HEALTHIER HEART.

Owning any pet is good for your heart. Cats in particular lower your stress level—possibly since they don’t require as much effort as dogs—and lower the amount of anxiety in your life. Petting a cat has a positive calming effect. One study found that over a 10-year period cat owners were 30 percent less likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than non-cat owners (although this might just be because cat owners are more relaxed and have lower stress in general).

6. THEY FULFILL YOUR NEED FOR COMPANIONSHIP.

The stereotype that dogs are more affectionate than cats is just that: a stereotype. In fact, it turns out that cats can be just as good of companions as dogs, especially for women. An Austrian study conducted in 2003 found that having a cat in the house is the emotional equivalent of having a romantic partner. As well as initiating contact much of the time, studies have shown cats will remember kindness shown to them and return the favor later.

But cats really do have the upper hand in these relationships. After thousands of years of domestication, cats have learned how to make a half purr/half howl noise that sounds remarkably like a human baby’s cry. And since our brains are programmed to respond to our children’s distress, it is almost impossible to ignore what a cat wants when it demands it like that.

7. THEY CAN TELL YOU (AND OTHERS!) A LOT ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

Your choice of pet reveals something about your personality. While dog lovers tend to be the life of the party, cat owners are quieter and more introverted. However, they score very highly when it comes to how trustworthy they are and how much they trust other people. Cat owners are also less manipulative and more modest.

8. YOU'LL SLEEP BETTER.

Several studies and polls in the UK have found that people (especially women) prefer to sleep with their cats than with their partners, and they even report sleeping better with a cat than with a human. A recent study from the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine indicates that they might be on to something: 41 percent of the people in that study indicated that they slept better because of their pet, while only 20 percent said that it led to disturbances.

9. CAT OWNERSHIP MEANS FEWER ALLERGIES.

Sadly, it’s too late for you, but if you have a child on the way, it might be time to get a cat. In 2002, the National Institutes of Health released a study that found children under a year old who were exposed to a cat were less likely to develop allergies—and not just pet allergies. According to Marshall Plaut, M.D., chief of the allergic mechanisms section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, "high pet exposure early in life appears to protect against not only pet allergy but also other types of common allergies, such as allergy to dust mites, ragweed, and grass." And while the cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii is a threat to young children, experts say that by changing your cat’s litter box every day and keeping the animal indoors, you should be safe and allergy free!

10. THEY CAN QUITE LITERALLY SAVE YOUR LIFE.

Cats have a reputation of being aloof and not caring about their humans, but they have saved countless lives over the years. One cat in the United Kingdom warns her human when he’s about to have an epileptic seizure, while a cat in Montana woke up its two humans when a gas pipe started leaking. Firefighters told the couple that the house could easily have exploded if not for cat’s intervention.

One cat has even received the highest medal available to military animals. Simon the cat was onboard the HMS Amethyst, which was sailing up the Yangtze in 1949 when a shell hit the ship, killing several marines and severely injuring Simon. (The event marked the beginning of the 101-day siege of the ship, which would become known as the Yangtze Incident.) Simon was fixed up, and despite being injured, performed his ship duty and started catching the rats that were threatening the ship’s food supply, as well as providing moral support for the surviving sailors. Simon died not long after the ship returned to the UK, but he was posthumously awarded the UK’s Dickin Medal, recognized as the animal Victoria Cross, for "behaviour [of] the highest order, although the blast was capable of making a hole over a foot in diameter in a steel plate."

All images via iStock unless otherwise noted.

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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
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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