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10 of History's Most Power-Hungry Cats

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Alamy and iStock

By Caitlin Kelly

1. The Cat in the British Cabinet

Cats have stalked the corridors of British government since the reign of Henry VIII, but few have gotten as much publicity as Humphrey, the first feline to be named chief government mouser. The black-and-white cat wandered into No. 10 Downing Street in 1989 and was quickly employed by the cabinet office. His winning personality and track record ensured his position under three successive prime ministers.

But like most political animals his appointment was not scandal-free; in 1994, Humphrey was blamed for the death of several baby robins. The cabinet office leaped to his defense, maintaining that Humphrey had been ill and “could not have caught anything even if it had been roast duck with orange sauce presented to him on a plate.” It took an official inquiry to clear his name. After eight years of service, Humphrey officially retired on November 13, 1997, but even this was not without intrigue. Despite his strong support within the Labour Party, the press speculated that he had been forced from his position by none other than Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie.

2. The Cat That Started an International Incident

While serving as U.S. ambassador to India in 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith brought his family along on an official visit to Gujarat, where the governor of the Indian state presented Galbraith’s two sons with a pair of Siamese kittens. The boys named one Ahmedabad, after the city where the cats were born. Later that year, Galbraith’s wife, Catherine, told a story about the cat, using the kitten’s nickname, “Ahmed.”

What the family didn’t realize is that Ahmed is one of the many names of the prophet Muhammad. When the story appeared in the international edition of Time, it sparked outrage in Pakistan, where extremists were already fuming over American aid to Indian armed forces. The consulate was attacked, a jeep carrying Americans overturned, and mullahs decried U.S. insensitivity. Galbraith moved to avert the diplomatic crisis, starting with changing the cat’s name to Gujarat, but as he later wrote, “Amateurs will never understand how much can turn on the name of a kitten.”

3. The Cat That Committed Wrenocide

You’ll never earn the nickname “Tibbles the Merciless” by wasting your days batting away at scratching posts and pieces of string. A highly efficient hunter, Tibbles is remembered as the most likely cause of extinction for an entire species, the Stephens Island wren—a small, flightless bird that thrived on New Zealand’s Stephens Island until humans and cats moved there in 1892. By 1894, 17 people and Tibbles were making their presence felt on the tiny, brush-covered rock, and before long, Tibbles was leaving her bird catches on doorsteps. Her victims found an eager admirer in David Lyall, an assistant lighthouse keeper with an interest in natural history. Lyall sent a specimen to New Zealand’s leading ornithologists, where the scientists were delighted to discover a new species so close to home.

The joy was short-lived, however. By the end of 1895, naturalists declared the Stephens Island wren extinct, thanks to Tibbles and a few of her furry brethren. The cleanup crew was not rewarded for its thoroughness. At the turn of the century, a bounty was offered for any cat on the island, and by 1925, the Stephens Island cat had gone the way of its flightless bird.

4. The Cat That Can See Russia From Its House

For more than 15 years, the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, a tiny village at the base of Mt. McKinley, has spent his days lounging in the town’s general store, often enjoying an afternoon wineglass of catnip. Although Stubbs the cat never formally ran for office, he was elected after townspeople, unimpressed by the selection of mayoral candidates, began a write-in campaign in 1997.

At least, that’s the story they like to tell. In reality, it was a publicity stunt by the town—and it worked. A career politician, Stubbs has served as honorary mayor of Talkeetna since he was a kitten, checking in on local businesses, taking frequent catnaps, and, most importantly, helping to lure tourists into town.

5. The Cat That Put France in Space

The French have been turning animals into aeronauts since the 18th century, when the Montgolfier brothers launched a sheep, a duck, and a rooster toward space in a hot-air balloon. After successfully sending up rats in 1961 and 1962, France decided that cats were the natural chaser. CERMA (France’s Center for the Study and Research of Aerospace Medicine) collected 14 alley cats and subjected them to compression chambers, centrifuges, and noise boxes simulating a rocket launch. Two of the cats excelled: a tabby named Félix and a black-and-white cat named Félicette.

Félix was chosen for the first mission, but the crafty cat went AWOL just before the scheduled launch on October 18, 1963. So instead it was Félicette who took a 97-mile-high, 13-minute ride aboard the Veronique AGI-V47 rocket, earning the title of first cat in space. Hailed by newspapers, and dubbed “Astrocat” by the press, Félicette cruised her way into the public’s heart. And while Félix shirked his national duty to tomcat about, he did reemerge to steal his pal’s thunder. When Niger, Chad, and Comoros issued commemorative stamps in honor of Félicette’s flight, the achievement was wrongly credited to Félix.

6. The Cat That Swayed the Courtroom

Shirley Duguay was a 32-year-old mother of five when she disappeared from Prince Edward Island in October 1994. When her body was found, police suspected her estranged boyfriend, Douglas Beamish, of the murder. But the evidence linking him to the case was thin—until police found a bloodstained jacket stashed in the woods. The blood matched Duguay’s. Twenty-seven white cat hairs in the coat’s lining provided a second clue—could they have come from Beamish’s cat, Snowball?

While DNA evidence had been used in trials for years, no one had ever used DNA from an animal in the courtroom. In fact, it wasn’t clear to scientists if an animal’s hair was distinctive enough or whether the fur from closely related cats might produce false positives. Investigator Roger Savoie needed to know, so he convinced an expert in cat genetics to take on the challenge.

The extra work paid off. The fuzz on the jacket proved a genetic match to Snowball, and Beamish was convicted of second-degree murder, setting a precedent for animal DNA in the courtroom. As for Roger Savoie? He was named 1997 Mountie of the Year thanks to his casework. Snowball, too, came out on top. He was placed in the feline equivalent of witness protection—given sanctuary at his loving grandparents’ place.

7. The Cat That Discovered a Continent

Born in 1799 aboard the HMS Reliance, Trim the cat was a natural sailor. Unafraid of choppy water, he swam with ease. When rope was thrown down for him, his owner, Capt. Matthew Flinders, claimed that he “took hold of it like a man and ran up it like a cat.” But Trim’s best trick was keeping his owner in good spirits. The two spent four memorable years sailing the South Pacific together, even completing the first-ever circumnavigation of Australia.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. The captain and his cat were separated in Mauritius, when Flinders was thrown into prison as a spy. Assuming his faithful cat had been eaten, Flinders vowed to create a memorial in Trim’s honor. And while he didn’t live long enough to see his promise through, his cat’s legacy endures. To this day, Flinders is remembered for proving through his journey that Australia was an island (rather than a group of islands). Statues of Flinders often include Trim, and if the captain had had his way, history would have given the cat equal billing.

8. The Cat That Saved the Prophet

There’s a saying in Turkey: “If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque for God’s forgiveness.” This all stems back to a cat named Muezza, the favorite pet of the prophet Muhammad. According to one folktale, Muezza saved Muhammad from a deadly snake. When the prophet stroked her back as thanks, cats gained their ability to always land on their feet.

Muhammad would go on to teach his followers, “Cats are not impure; they keep watch around us.” The prophet’s legendary appreciation for cats made the creatures far more welcome by Muslims than by their Christian counterparts, who for centuries reviled felines as agents of the devil and carriers of plague. To this day, cats are welcomed into mosques with open arms.

9. The Cat That Fetched a Fortune

Dick Whittington was a poor orphan in 14th-century England who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become lord mayor of London—all thanks to his cat. As the story goes, Whittington was working as a servant when his boss spied an opportunity—he asked each of his servants to send one of their most valued items with a trusted sea captain to see what the goods might fetch abroad. Owning nothing but a cat, Whittington was reluctant to part with his pet. But the trade worked in his favor. The King of Barbary, struggling with a significant mouse problem in his palace, bought the cat from the captain for an untold sum, which the captain returned to the rightful owner. The suddenly wealthy Whittington then went on to become the mayor! Or so the story goes. The real Richard Whittington was the four-time mayor of London, but he was neither poor nor orphaned, and there’s no evidence he even had a cat. Still, the story is so popular that the feline is immortalized in a statue on Highgate Hill.

10. The Cat That Lobbied Washington

Stubbs isn’t the only fat cat built for politics. In Virginia, a Maine Coon named Hank turned his early life challenges into a key part of his voter narrative. He grew up on the streets with a single mother and ended up in a shelter. But that’s where he turned his life around. Before long, he’d met his owner and future campaign manager, Anthony Roberts, who decided the 9-year-old cat should run for Virginia Senate. A moderate independent, Hank’s campaign posters promised “a better Virginia … a brighter future.” About 7,000 voters agreed, turning out for a write-in campaign across the state. Hank nabbed third in the race, and while it didn’t put him on the Hill, his campaign raised roughly $60,000 for animal rescue. Perhaps Hank’s true calling is to become Washington’s cuddliest lobbyist.

For more historical felines, check out Sam Stall's 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization. For 17 million modern cats, check out the Internet.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

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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