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Public Transportation is for the Birds (and Dogs and Goats)

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We've all heard of snakes on a plane, but what about cats on a bus? Or dogs on a subway? Here are the stories of some crafty members of the animal kingdom who have found that public transportation is the only way to travel.

New Kid On the Bus

Just like Mary, who had a little lamb that followed her to school each day, Jordan Lamp of Ohio had her own four-legged tag-along, Nanny, a goat that repeatedly jumped on the school bus with her in 2008. The new "kid" in school was always quickly dismissed, despite protests from the rest of the students on the bus, but she became quite famous nonetheless. Thankfully, the school took the minor disruption in stride, offering to sign Nanny up during the Spring open enrollment period. However, as Superintendent Chuck Swindler pointed out, the arrangement probably wouldn't work in the long run: "The big problem he has is he tends to eat his homework..."

Where Everybody Knows Ratty's Name

As the Cheers theme song put it, sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. And for Ratty the Jack Russel Terrier, that place was the Black Bull Pub in Dunnington, UK. At least twice a week, Ratty would hop on the No. 10 bus across the street from his house and take it five miles to the pub, where he had his own water bowl and was fed his favorite sausages. However, like so many barflies, Ratty could never seem to find his way back home. A friendly barmaid would usually give him a ride at the end of the night, or the pub's owner would simply call Ratty's owner to come get him. This went on for years, until 2006 when the Black Bull was sold and the new owners banned the dog from the pub.

But it wasn't long before the terrier found another pub to call home—the nearby Rose and Crown, where the owner said he was always welcome. Sadly, this April, 10 year old Ratty was struck down and killed while crossing the street to board the No. 10 bus for his regular trip to the pub.

A Different Kind of Passenger Pigeon

We all know the old joke, "I just flew in and, boy, are my arms tired." The pigeon comedians of London can't really use that joke, though, since many of them use the Underground subway system to save themselves some flapping. The birds, especially on the Northern and Piccadilly lines, will walk into the car at one station, ride it to the next, and then get off. The birds will even stand and wait patiently for the doors, indicating they know which side of the car will open for their stop.

But the Brit birds aren't the only ones who ride the rails. In New York City, pigeons have been seen on the A line for years. The train car stops for cleaning at the Far Rockaway station and the birds take the opportunity to get on board and scrounge for crumbs. As the train returns to service, it takes the birds with it, and the pigeons have simply learned to get off when the doors open again at the next station. Some employees say the birds will fly back to the Far Rockaway station so they can get back on when the train returns.

There's no question the YouTube sensation known as Henry, a pigeon on the Toronto Transit Commission subway, commutes like an old pro. As he waits for his stop, he patiently stays near the center pole. But he begins to pace around once the overhead voice indicates the train is arriving at Runnymede Station. And, as if he's done it a thousand times before, he simply walks right through the doors just before they close behind him. Obviously he's a native.

Percy Peruses the Penguins

If you were a cat, where would you take the train? To the aquarium, of course. That's exactly what Percy, a cat in Scarborough, UK, does when he hops the North Bay Railway and travels from his home to the nearby Sea Life Centre. There, Percy sits in front of the large tanks, watching the colorful fish swim by. And once he's done with the fish, he'll go watch the penguins until his presence makes them nervous and an employee has to shoo him away. After Percy's had his fill of marine life, he somehow knows when his train is coming, and heads back to the station to catch a ride home. The park and railway employees say he's one of the best-behaved visitors they have. [Image credit: Purr-n-Fur.]

Casper the Commuter Cat

Susan Finden was boarding the No. 3 bus across the street from her house in Plymouth, UK, when her cat Casper followed her on. She tried to shoo him off, but the driver informed her that Casper was a regular rider. According to the driver, Casper would consistently "queue up in line good as gold "“ it'd be 'person, person, person, cat, person'" for the normal 10:55am departure. Once on board, the cat took his favorite seat in the back, curled up, and slept through the 11-mile, hour-long journey. After the bus returned, Casper would simply get off, or, if he was still asleep, the driver would nudge him awake to remind him it was his stop. This wasn't a fluke thing, either "“ Casper had ridden the bus every day for going on four years, traveling an estimated 20,000 miles. Unfortunately, Casper's bus-riding days were numbered. In January 2010, Casper was hit by a vehicle while crossing the street for his daily commute.

Moscow's Metro Mutts

There are approximately 35,000 stray dogs living in and around Moscow today; about 500 of them live in subway stations where there's plenty of food and no dangerous vehicular traffic like on the street above. Of these 500, a few have developed a very special skill "“ riding the subway. The dogs generally take the train from the suburbs to the city center, where the best food can be scrounged and begged for. According to Andrei Neuronov, an animal behaviorist, the dogs have figured out how to ride the subway by using their keen instincts. They have memorized the different smells of the stations and can recognize the station names as they're called out over the loudspeaker. They even use their own internal clocks to know approximately when the train they want is coming, as well as when to get off when they return home that night.

While other cities might find the dogs a nuisance, many Muscovites show great admiration for their subway strays. For example, after the brutal stabbing of a well-liked subway dog nicknamed Malchik in 2001, money donated by Muscovites helped erect a bronze statue of the dog inside the station he once called home. Even today, it's not unusual to see flowers left there for the beloved canine.

Hachikō of Shibuya Station

Hachikō, a rare breed of Akita, never got on the train at Shibuya Station in Japan, but his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, boarded to go to the University of Tokyo where he was a professor. Every day, the dog walked with his master to the station and would be there again when Ueno got off the train that evening. This went on for a little over a year before a cerebral hemorrhage killed Ueno while he was at work. Although Ueno never came home again, Hachikō waited for him. Even after Hachikō had been taken in by new owners, the dog still came to the station every day for the next nine years to wait for his beloved master's return. As employees and commuters began to take note of Hachikō's vigil, his story spread and he became something of a role model to the people of Japan, admired for his loyalty.

On March 8, 1935, Hachikō was found dead in the streets of Shibuya. As an honor, his body was mounted and put on display at the National Science Museum of Japan in Tokyo. Additionally, a large, bronze statue was erected at Shibuya Station, where an annual ceremony is held on April 8 to commemorate this incredibly faithful dog. In 2009, his story was the subject of a Richard Gere movie, Hachi: A Dog's Tale.

So, a Monkey and a Bulldog Walk Onto a Train...

Still not impressed by these mass transit animals? Check out Pan-Kun, a chimpanzee, and his buddy, a bulldog named James, as they not only ride a train in Japan, but even figure out how to buy the ticket, with very little human assistance. It's all part of a TV show where Pan-Kun and James are given human tasks to accomplish and, more often than not, pass these tests with flying colors.

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Ever ridden the bus with a goat? Or the subway with a pigeon? How about an airplane next to one of those yappy-type dogs? Tell us all about your wildest animal travel experiences in the comments below.




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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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.