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Stubbs the Mayor at Facebook

9 Cats With Cushy Jobs

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Stubbs the Mayor at Facebook

Cats are useful wherever they are, and they don’t always live in private homes. Here are a few who serve as mousers, greeters, public relations agents, and stress relievers under various titles. None of them let the burdens of employment interfere with nap time.

1. Mr. Wu the New Orleans Bar Cat

Mr. Wu is the resident cat at Molly’s at the Market in New Orleans. He walked into the bar for shelter during hurricane Katrina in 2005 and never left. Mr. Wu spends a lot of time sleeping, but enjoys being petted by patrons. He also has his own MySpace page, although, like most MySpace pages, it is never updated. When Mr. Wu bellies up to the bar, he is served fresh cream in a go cup. Photograph by Skye via Mr. Cajun Boy.

2. Scuzzball and 3. Creeper the Record Store Cats

Scuzzball and Creeper are the cats at Bleecker Street Records in New York City. The siblings were left to the record store when their owner had to give them up due to the rigors of chemotherapy. Scuzzball has been described by customers as “huge.” Both cats prefer to sleep all day, and are friendliest when the store staff arrives in the morning. After that, they take it easy. Bleecker Street Records is no longer on Bleecker Street, but has moved to 188 West 4th St. between Jones and Barrow in the West Village. Photographs by Freddie Moore

4. Fred the Undercover Cat

Fred was a Brooklyn stray before he helped investigators bust a college student posing as a veterinarian in 2005. Robert Reid had suspicions about Steven Vassall when the fake vet treated his dog, so he contacted the Brooklyn District Attorney's office. Assistant DA Carol Moran took Fred from Animal Control and deputized him for an investigation. When Vassall agreed to neuter Fred for $135, he was promptly arrested. Fred became a media sensation for his part in the sting operation.

5. Tizer the Constable

In 2007, the British Transport Police adopted a cat named Tizer and made him an honorary constable. “Chief Mouser Pc Tizer” was stationed at King's Cross rail station and worked hard to ensure a mouse-free train experience for riders. In addition to saving the force money in extermination fees, he was also a stress-reducer for the staff. Tizer was already 13 years old when he was adopted and put to work. After two years of service, he retired to a private home, where he died in 2009.

6. Zaireeka the Record Store Cat

Zaireeka lived and worked at Permanent Records in Chicago for at least six years. She became a local celebrity among those who browsed the music selection. Zaireeka passed away last year shortly after moving to Permanent Records' Eagle Rock, California, location. Photograph by Flickr user Sharyn Morrow

7. Tama the Stationmaster

Tama, a Japanese calico cat, is credited with saving the Wakayama Electric Railway Company of Japan from financial ruin. Wakayama was losing money, and laid off employees. Tama, who was born to a stray at the Kinokawa station, remained at her post (not that she had anywhere else to go). In January of 2007, she was named Stationmaster and the resulting publicity boosted ridership tremendously, saving Wakayama from bankruptcy. She is now the fifth-highest ranking officer in the company. Tama even has her own uniform and office! Tama has been greeting fans for years. Photograph by Wikipedia Japan member Sanpei

8. Millie the Security Guard

In the summer of 2012, a Bengal cat named Millie was hanging around the Bandai warehouse in Southampton, England. Since she was there, and the warehouse was piling up with toys for Christmas, they went ahead and made her their security guard. Millie got a uniform just her size, and spent her time checking out the stacks of boxes and wandering the warehouse floor. No mice would get past this cat!

9. Stubbs the Mayor

Stubbs has been a fixture at Nagley’s General Store in Talkneetna, Alaska, since manager Lauri Stec adopted the tailless kitten fifteen years ago. But Stubbs is more than just a store clerk. The 800 or so citizens of Talkneetna elected him mayor of the town when he was still a kitten -and have reelected him ever since. Stubbs is popular because he doesn’t raise taxes, he never gets into trouble, and he lets everyone have their say. He is also a tourist draw. Photograph from Facebook

There are plenty more cats with interesting jobs and cute pictures, so look for the second installment of this list coming soon. See also our posts on Library Cats and Bookstore Cats

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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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