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36 Cat Facts for International Cat Day

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Don't miss an episode—subscribe today! Images and footage provided by Shutterstock. Here's a transcript courtesy of Nerdfighteria Wiki:

Hi, I'm John Green. Welcome to my salon. This is mental_floss on YouTube. And this is Lyla. You know, Lyla, we have a lot in common: we're both friends with Meredith, we both live in Indiana, we both hate mice. The major difference is that you do your own grooming, whereas I rely upon Mark for my makeup.

1. Anyway, did you know that Mary Todd Lincoln was once asked if Abe Lincoln had any hobbies? And her reply was "cats."

2. Since I'm talking about historical figures who loved cats, Charles Dickens once said, "What greater gift than the love of a cat?" You have to remember he lived before the Xbox One.

3. John Lennon was also a big fan of cats. Over the years, he had cats named Salt and Pepper, Major and Minor, Tim, Sam, Mimi, Bernard, Sally, Elvis, and Jesus. Do you think Jesus walked around just thinking he was, you know … Jesus? Of course he did, he was a cat.

4. Polydactyl felines are sometimes called Hemingway cats because Ernest Hemingway once had a six-toed cat named Snowball. He let it run wild outside his Key West home and now some 40-50 six-toed descendants of Snowball who are still allowed to roam around his house.

5. Speaking of which, outdoor cats somehow time-share areas to prevent fights. Like, even if multiple cats like going to the same place, they seem to have some way of knowing how to avoid each other.

6. In 1884, Thomas Edison reportedly made the first viral cat video. He filmed two cats hashing it out in a tiny boxing ring, with a bit of help from human handlers of course. It's a great video, but I'm gonna stick with keyboard cat.

7. The cat who played Crookshanks in Harry Potter endured a great indignity in service to his work. His trainers would gather bits of his shed fur, roll it into balls, and clip them back onto him in order to really pump up his rough and and slightly mangy appearance.

8. Onto another famous cat—Mr. Bigglesworth, the hairless sphinx from the Austin Powers movies, is named SGC Belfry Ted Nude-Gent.

Anybody—Nude-Gent? Eh? 'Cause he's a sphinx.

9. Some cats who had nothing to do with the film industry still managed to get famous—for example, Humphrey was the first feline to be named "Chief Government Mouser" in the United Kingdom.

The black-and-white cat wandered into number 10 Downing Street in 1989, and was quickly employed by the cabinet office. He remained in the esteemed position for three successive Prime Ministers, proving that while it's hard out there for a cat, it's harder out there for a Prime Minister.

10. Anyway, nowadays, the British Government employs over 100,000 cats to keep mice away—that's almost double the population of Greenland.

11. Bill Clinton's cat, Socks, didn't love the family's Labrador Retriever, Buddy, which is an example of irony, because his name was literally Buddy.

12. A cat named Tibbles, along with several other cats, caused the Stephens Island Wren to go extinct as a result of over-hunting, which leads to the question—who would name their cat Tibbles?

No wonder he acted out in anger and hunted down all those Stephens Island Wrens!

13. The mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a cat named Stubbs. He is now responsible for the town's steady stream of around 30-40 tourists daily, which is pretty good, or a town of just 900 people.
Some of us know Talkeetna, Alaska because of the Talkeetna Bluegrass festival, which is famous because that's where I got dumped one time.

14. In 1963, France sent the first cat into space, but in the two years prior, they had sent several rats into space. No word on whether the cat was able to you know, like, track down the rats. Probably not, though—I've seen Gravity.

This cat's on its way to space, but I don't see George Clooney so I'm a little nervous.

15. In the early 1800s, Trim the cat, along with his owner, Captain Matthew Flinders, completed the first ever circumnavigation of Australia.

16. And since we're talking about history, scientists once believed that cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt, approximately 4,000 years ago. But new research, published in 2013, shows that a breed of once wild cats lived in close proximity to farmers in China some 5300 years ago.

17. Hairballs were once though to cure epilepsy, the plague, and poisoning; like, during the Middle Ages, hairballs were even set in gold. You can also set a cat in gold.

18. In the 1870s, a Belgian village 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 mail bags around each feline's neck … and the plan failed.

19. But some cats have jobs that they're actually pretty successful at, like Tama, the cat who's a station master at the Wakayama Electric Rail Station in Japan, and has two assistants who are also cats.

A study done in 2008 found that Tama helped bring in annually 1.1 billion yen, or $10.44 million, to the local economy thanks to tourism, because who doesn't wanna go to a station that's run by a cat?

20. Russia loses about $800 million a year from illegal sturgeon fishing. So in 2003, police in Stavropol hired a cat named Rusik to sniff out sturgeon smugglers.

21. Speaking of Russia, in the 1960s America deployed the first cat ever used to spy on the Russians. It cost 20 million dollars, and was immediately hit by a taxi after leaving the CIA van. This cat had recording devices surgically implanted into it, and it made it, like, one minute into Russia.

22. In 1997, Ketzel the cat jumped on a piano and created a song. The cat's owner transcribed that tune and submitted the piece to a Parisian music competition, where it won a prize! That's awesome, even cats are less tone deaf than I am.

23. Then of course we have fictional cats, like Hello Kitty, who was actually partially named after Alice's cat, Kitty, from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. The creator added the "Hello" later. Why is Hello Kitty in a jar by the way?

24. Speaking of name origins, Tom, of the Tom and Jerry cartoons, was originally named Jasper.

25. Nyan cat was created by 25-year-old Christopher Torres while he was participating in a donation drive for the Red Cross. One person suggested he draw a pop-tart, and another person suggested that he draw a cat. He ended up creating the first hybrid pop-tart-cat.

26. Some cats are actually allergic to humans. Like, 1 in every 200 cats is diagnosed with cat asthma, which is worse when they come into contact with humans. Some people are allergic to cats, of course, but I find that 1 in 200 people lie and say they have a cat allergy, when in fact, they just don't like cats.

27. According to Psychology Today, quote, "The brains of cats have an amazing surface folding and a structure that is about 90% similar to ours." The cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that's responsible for cognitive information processing, is actually more complex in cats than it is in dogs and cats have some 300 million neurons, whereas dogs only have about 160 million.

28. Speaking of cat brains, cats also have their own form of Alzheimer's disease. Also like us, they can get fat. In fact 55% of American cats are either overweight or obese.

29. Cats also can't taste sweet food, which makes me wonder—how are they getting obese?!

30. Cats purr when they're content, but they also purr then they're giving birth, or sick, or nursing, or wounded, or in a stressful situation.

Ugh! Cats! Can't you be straight-forward about any of your feelings?! They're astonishingly emotionally complex. Or maybe they just hate me. I can't tell, actually.

31. Speaking of how complicated a creature the cat is, some cats prefer licking their paws to drinking out of a water bowl if they don't like the shape of the water bowl. Some also experience what's called "Whisker Stress". They may not like the pressure of their whiskers while they eat or drink.

32. Cats spend between 30 and 50% of their days cleaning themselves, which means that even though your cat poops in the house, it's still cleaner than most hipsters. Meredith, we can't say bad things about hipsters, that's our core audience!

33. Hairballs, by the the way, aren't just for cats. Cows and rabbits are especially prone to hairballs, but their bodies aren't designed to vomit them up.

34. How do you keep future generations away from nuclear waste? This might be a job for cats.

35. Fascinatingly, it seems that cats that tumble from great heights have a much better chance of survival than those who fall from 5 stories or fewer. Obviously, don't try this at home, but it may be because terminal velocity for a cat isn't that high and if it comes from really high up it has some more time to like get ready for the fall. Don't try it at home!

36. And finally I return to my salon to tell you, and also Lyla, the record for a cat surviving a fall, 43 stories. Lyla, I think that's taller than the tallest building in Indianapolis, so you should be fine.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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