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12 Jobs People Decided to Give to Cats

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Think canines are the only four-legged creatures that can hold down jobs? Think again.

1. Millie: guard cat

When workers at Bandai’s toy warehouse in Britain found a lonely Bengal cat roaming the grounds, they decided to hire her. Now an official security guard, Millie (top) has a pet care clause woven into her crime-stopping contract.

2. Ketzel: music composer

Infinite Cat

Move over, Keyboard cat: In 1997, Ketzel the feline became an award-winning music composer. Ketzel’s owner, Morris Moshe Cotel, was a pianist and professor at Peabody, and he transcribed the tune after Ketzel jumped onto the piano keys one morning. “This piece has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Cotel said, amazed. “How can this be? It’s written by a cat.” Cotel submitted the piece to a Parisian music competition, where it won a prize. (The judges didn’t know a cat wrote it.)

3. Rusik: crime-buster

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Each year, Russia loses about $800 million from illegal sturgeon fishing. So in 2003, police in Stavropol hired a cat named Rusik to sniff out sturgeon smugglers. He successfully busted a handful of mafiosos. But that July, Rusik died in the line of duty after being run over by a mafia car he had sniffed out. It was a fishy ending—police believe the driver was a hitman.

4. Kuzya: assistant librarian

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It’s tough landing a job as a librarian. Now it might be impossible. After all, who can outdo a cat in a job interview? Earlier this year, Kuzya was promoted to assistant librarian at the library in Novorossiysk, Russia, where she earns a salary of 30 packs of cat food per month.

5. Belgium’s mail cats

In the 1870s, the Belgian village of Liège trained 37 mail cats to deliver letters. Conceived by the esteemed Belgian Society for the Elevation of the Domestic Cat, the plan was to wrap waterproof mailbags around each feline’s neck. The New York Times reported that, “Unless the criminal class of dogs undertakes to waylay and rob the mail cats, the messages will be delivered rapidly and safely.” To the joy of jobless mailmen everywhere, the plan failed.

6. Mr. Bigglesworth: actor

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“Mr. Bigglesworth” is a great name for a cat. Not only is the purebred hairless sphinx from Austin Powers an actor, but it has a smashing name in real life, too: “SGC Belfry Ted Nude-Gent.”

7. Félicette: astrocat

Catmoji

The first cat to go where no cat has gone before, Félicette was blasted 97 miles into space on October 18, 1963, by a French Veronique AG1 rocket. She survived! Prior to the big launch, the French government collected 14 alley cats and tested their mettle for spaceflight, subjecting them to compression chambers and centrifuges. Ten of the cat astronauts were discharged for over-eating.

8. Oscar: grim reaper

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If you ever see Oscar and he curls up in your lap, you might have a reason to worry. You’ve probably got only two hours left to live. Adopted by a nursing home in Rhode Island, Oscar has accurately predicted the demise of dozens of patients. He’s so good at predicting when you’ll kick the bucket, the nursing staff will call a patient’s family when he pays their loved one a visit. Some scientists believe that Oscar may be attracted to the smell of biochemicals released by dying cells, called ketones.

9. CIA Spy Cat

Jason Reed/Reuters/Corbis

With all this talk about the NSA snooping around, you might want to think twice if your tabby is looking over your shoulder. In the 1960s, the CIA tried spying on the Soviets with cats. To eavesdrop, the CIA implanted a microphone into the cat’s ear canal and hid a transmitter at the bottom of its skull. After burning through $20 million over five years, the prototype cat—a nameless gray and white female—was ready. The CIA parked a reconnaissance van on a D.C. street. The cat hopped out, dashed across the road, and was promptly hit by a taxicab.

10. Stubbs: mayor

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Stubbs has been mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska for 16 years. His time in office has been mired by multiple assassination attempts. A group of teenagers once shot him in the rump with a BB gun, and this August he was mauled by a neighborhood dog (obviously a political foe). He’s still living the high life, though. Stubbs drinks water out of a wineglass coated with catnip every day, and he continues to inspire felines to run for office. In 2012, a 9-year-old Maine Coon named Hank ran for Senate in Virginia under the independent ticket. He got 7000 votes.

11. Larry: former chief mouser to the cabinet office

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The British government employs over 100,000 cats to keep mice away, reports the Guardian. But Larry is king. He lives at 10 Downing Street with Prime Minister David Cameron, which may explain why he’s given in to a couple scandals. In 2011, Larry was seen slipping out of the house to spend time with a neighboring lady cat. He’s also been criticized for sleeping on the job. After making only one confirmed kill, Larry was sacked for poor job performance. Thankfully, unlike every Chief Mouser before him, Larry’s upkeep was not paid for by taxpayers.

12. Tama: stationmaster and economy-booster

Wikimedia Commons

When Tama became stationmaster at the Wakayama electric rail station in Japan, ridership suddenly increased 10 percent—a boost of 2.1 million passengers per year. The local economy reported an overall boom of 1.1 billion yen (that’s $11 million!). To recognize the calico cat’s achievement, the railway promoted Tama to Operating Officer, making her the first cat to become an official railroad executive. She now has two assistants (who are also cats).

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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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