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Raising Mercury

Four Cats With Fewer Than Three Legs

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Raising Mercury

We often read stories about the amazing adaptability of animals. They endure pain, but they do not wallow in self-pity. A disabled animal will do what it must do to get on with life using what it has. A four-legged animal can get around pretty well on three legs, as I learned when our border collie lost one. In these stories, four cats learned to get around pretty well with even less than three. I should say fewer than three, but you know what less than three means: <3.

1. Mercury: Two Rear Legs

Meet Mercury, the kitten that gets around on his two rear legs, like a T. rex. He was found in September, when he was only about four days old, having already lost his two front forelegs and most of the toes on one back leg. Neighbors suspected it was due to a weed whacker. After veterinary care, he was placed with an Oklahoma foster family even before his eyes opened. Mercury learned to get around on two legs as he first learned to walk, and now he runs, jumps, climbs stairs, and holds his own with the other cats. His foster family decided to make him a permanent member of the family.

Photograph from Raising Mercury.

Here’s a video that shows how he moves around on two legs. You can see more pictures and videos at Mercury’s Facebook page.

2. Anakin: Two Front Legs

Photograph by Carrie Hawks via Facebook.

Anakin was born with neither a pelvic bone nor his rear legs. Artist Carrie Hawks adopted him as a young kitten from a feral colony of cats. He was named after the character who became Darth Vader, who was also missing some limbs. Ani learned to walk balancing on his front limbs only. The Hawks considered wheels for his back end, but since the kitten got around well enough without them, he does not use wheels. Besides, that would hinder him from climbing stairs or cat towers, which you can see him do here. If he needs wheels as he gets older, he will have them. This video was recorded in the summer of 2012, when Anakin was first settling into his new home.

Anakin had a few medical interventions due to his abnormalities. He lives with several other cats and a dog, and gets plenty of human interaction. The rest of Anakin’s feral family was captured, fixed, and vaccinated, and then relocated to a private woodland where they are fed regularly. You can follow Anakin, now full grown, at his Facebook page

3. Caffrey: Two Legs on One Side

Caffrey, a Persian cat in England, has had to adapt to losing a leg twice in his life. At age three, he was struck by a car and his left hind leg had to be amputated. His front left paw was damaged, too. He adapted to walking on three legs for the next ten years. Then about a year ago, Caffrey developed a tumor in his left front leg, where he was injured in the earlier accident. The best hope for his survival was amputation, but veterinarians thought he’d never be able to get around on just two legs on the same side. Caffrey’s owner Sue Greaves knew it was Caffrey’s best chance for survival, so the operation was carried out, leaving Caffrey with only his two right legs. The old cat surprised everyone by walking around on two legs only a few days after the second amputation! See how well Caffrey moves about in this video. 

Caffrey inspired WeiChang Chiu to create a short animation called Caffrey’s Run.

4. Callie Mae: No Paws At All

In 2008, an adult cat named Callie Mae was chased up a telephone pole by dogs. At the top, she was electrocuted, which did so much damage to her legs that they all had to be amputated above the knee joint. The Theodore Vet Clinic in Mobile, Alabama, cared for Callie Mae, who learned to walk on her stumps. By 2010, she was pronounced well enough to go to a permanent home

After the story ran in the local news, many people applied to adopt Callie Mae. There has been no news about her since then, but we assume that she found a home with one of the applicants.

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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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