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Why Are Potatoes Called Spuds?

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Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his "Daily Knowledge" newsletter, click here.


One commonly cited explanation for why we call potatoes spuds goes like this: A 19th century activist group called The Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet, or SPUD, was formed to keep potatoes out of Britain. This group didn't want anyone eating the tubers. The story was perpetuated in Mario Pei's 1949 book, The Story of Language.

But it's clear that Pei was wrong about where the nickname originated, for one very good reason: Previous to the mid-20th century, abbreviations were prevalent in text, but pronouncing them as words was not something people typically did—that's a very modern phenomenon. In fact, according to linguist David Wilton, “There is only one known pre-20th-century [English] word with an acronymic origin, and it was in vogue for only a short time in 1886. The word is 'colinderies' or 'colinda,' an acronym for the Colonial and Indian Exposition held in London in that year.” (No surprise, then, that the word “acronym” didn’t pop up until 1943.)

The explanation for why we sometimes refer to potatoes as spuds is much simpler.

Among other definitions, a spud is a sharp, narrow spade used to dig up large-rooted plants. Around the mid-19th century—the first documented reference occurs in 1845 in New Zealand—this implement of destruction began lending its name to one of the things it was often used to dig up: potatoes. Eventually, the nickname caught on throughout the English-speaking world.

The ultimate origin of the word “spud” isn’t known. It first appeared in English around 1440 and referred to a short dagger, possibly from the Dutch spyd, the Old Norse spjot (spear), or the Latin spad (sword). Whatever the case, after the 15th century, the meaning of the word expanded: Instead of referring just to “a short dagger,” a spud could be one of various types of digging implements—and, eventually, referred to those tubers we all know and love.

Interestingly, when potatoes were first introduced to Europe, they met with a lot of resistance for a variety of reasons. Some people thought they were poisonous (before wild potatoes were domesticated, they actually were poisonous—and sprouts still are), while others refused to eat them because they weren’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible.

Check out more interesting articles from Daven over at Today I Found Out and subscribe to his Daily Knowledge newsletter here.

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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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