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How to Swear Like an Old Prospector

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Now that swearing like a pirate has jumped the shark, isn't it time we exhumed another subgenre of anachronistic curse words? To save us all from another "scurvy dogs" joke -- one more and I will walk the bloody plank -- I humbly propose replacing all naughty pirate jargon with crusty old-prospector talk, which is just as colorful, if not more expletive-laced. But this time, let's be smart about it -- nerdy, even -- and figure out from whence they came before we start throwing them around willy-nilly. To that end, here are my top five old prospector curses, and their respective, only slightly questionable, etymologies:

1. To dadburn
Function: verb
Definition: to curse
Etymology: "Dad" is a substitute for "God" in turn-of-the-century Southern U.S. vernacular. "Godburn" certainly sounds like Old-Testament-style divine retribution; ie, to curse.
Use it in a sentence: "Dadburned boll weevil done 'et my crop!"

2. To hornswoggle
Function: verb
Definition: To embarrass, disconcert or confuse.
Etymology: Belongs to a group of "fancified" words popular in the 19th century American West, invented to ridicule sophisticates back east. (Funny, it didn't quite work out that way.)
Use it in a sentence: "I'll be hornswoggled!"

3. Sockdolager
Function: noun
Definition: A big finish.
Etymology: A mis-heard, semi-spoonerism of the word "doxologer," a colloquial New England rendering of "doxology," which was a Puritan term for the collective raising of voices in song at the end of a worship service. Thus, a "sockdolager" is something truly exceptional -- the end-all-be-all.
Use it in a sentence: "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologisin' old man-trap!"
Fun fact: The above line appears in Tom Taylor's play Our American Cousin, which was performed on the evening of April 14th, 1865 at Ford's Theater. It got a big laugh from the crowd, which John Wilkes Booth used to muffle the sound of the gunshot that assassinated President Lincoln.

4. Consarn
Function: noun
Definition: The whole of something, though often misused as "damn."
Etymology: Unknown, though it pops up in British literature as early as the eighteenth century. An educated guess: it's related to concern, a business establishment or enterprise.
Use it in a quip by 19th century American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw: "Put an Englishman into the Garden of Eden, and he would find fault with the whole blarsted consarn!"

5. Dumfungled
Function: adjective
Definition: Used up
Etymology: Also unknown, though it was coined during the Great Neologism Craze of the 1830s, and its common usage didn't survive the turn of the century.
Use it in a sentence: "Ye'd best put that dumfungled hoss out to pasture!"

Got some anachronistic filth of your own? Let us know!

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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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