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The Curious Origins of 9 Delicious Phrases

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1. The Cold Shoulder
Believe it or not, there was a time when giving someone the cold shoulder didn't just mean publicly snubbing them, it actually meant handing them a cold shoulder, as in a cold shoulder of beef. During the Middle Ages, the easiest way to hint to guests that they'd overstayed their welcome was to serve them a heaping mound of cold cow parts. A few platters of nothing but shoulder were supposed to drive away even the most persistent of guests.

2. Humble Pie
In the 13th Century, British families tended to divvy up food after a hunt by giving priority (and the best portions of meat) to the man who shot the stag, his eldest son and his closest male friends. Those of lesser importance, like the man's wife, his remaining children and the family of his friends for example, were graciously gifted the umbles (a.k.a. the heart, the brain, the tongue, the kidneys and the entrails). Coating these scraps in seasoning and then baking them into a piecrust made the umbles a little more appetizing, but not much, apparently. Years after the delicacy was discontinued, some punster added an "h" to the phrase, and "to eat humble pie" became synonymous with an embarrassing drop in social status, then generalized as any sort of humiliation.

3. Take the cake

Lifted from Southern black lingo, the phrase originated at cakewalk contests, where individuals would strut their stuff to the audience's delight. The owner of the most imaginative swagger would take home first prize, which was always a cake. While "take the cake" became standard English, some of the fancier cakewalk motions became standard parts of tap dance.

4. Bringin' home the bacon
baconmints.jpgWhat today means coming home with a wad of cash used to be a bit more literal. In the 12th Century, the Dunmow church in Essex County, Britain, began awarding salted and cured bacon strips to newly married couples if they could swear after one year of marriage that they had never once regretted the decision. Standards got a little stiffer in the 16th Century, however, when the church turned the event into a competition: Couples had to appear before a jury of six bachelors and bachelorettes and plead the magnitude of their happiness in order to "bring home the bacon."

"Eating crow", "Gone to pot" and much more, all covered after the jump...

5. Gone to pot
Pot_on_Stove.gifThe common phrase for something that's fallen apart or disintegrated goes back to the 16th Century, basically in reference to things that were actually going into the pot. While the chopping and stewing of meats and vegetables definitely illustrates its colloquial usage, "gone to pot" evolved into a 17th-Century euphemism for those who'd fallen victim to cannibals.
6. To eat crow
This saying, which means to humiliate oneself, has a pretty amusing legend behind it. During a truce in the war of 1812, a New Englander ventured over to the British camp to do some hunting. Frustrated by the lack of wild game, he decided to shoot the first thing he saw—a crow, which he nailed. A British officer, hearing the gunshot, decided to punish the American for trespassing, but since he was unarmed he used a bit of cunning. The Brit complimented the American on his aim and then asked to see the fine weapon with which the damage was done. The unsuspecting Yank handed over the weapon, after which the British officer turned it on the American, berated him and ordered him to eat a bite of the crow he'd killed. After a bit of useless begging, the American complied. The officer then gave the gun back and told the American to go home. But before the Brit could leave, the bitter Yank quickly turned the gun on the officer and forced him to eat the rest of the bird.

The tale would have gone unknown, except that the infuriated British officer went the next day to the American camp, demanding retribution. After hearing the tale, the U.S. commanding officer had the soldier brought to him and asked him if he'd seen this Englishmen before. After several attempts to respond, the soldier managed to stutter, "W-why y-y-yes, Captain, I d-d-dined with him y-y-yesterday."
7. A real ham
The common term for someone guilty of overacting is abbreviated from the slightly longer, and more offensive, hamfatter. Low-grade minstrel actors often didn't have the cash to spring for cold cream, so they resorted to applying ham fat to their faces before they put their make-up on. The fat was a viable substitute as it made removing makeup after a gig a whole lot easier. Consequently, the facial application became permanently connected to the actors who wore it.

8. Pleased as punch
punch-bowl.jpg The punch in the phrase doesn't refer to a tasty beverage, but instead to the main character in the old time "Punch and Judy" puppet shows. A staple at European carnivals, the Punch and Judy show was madly popular in the days before TV. The humorous puppet act always ended in a pleased Punch outwitting his shrewish wife, hence the phrase.
9. A Bakers' Dozen
Bakers of old weren't exactly the most ethical creatures. In fact, it was pretty well known that bakers used to dupe customers regularly by making loaves of bread that contained more air pockets than solid material. By 1266, Parliament was fed up (or not fed up, as it were) with their airy substitutes, so they enacted a law where bread had to be sold by weight. Most bakers didn't have the proper weighing equipment, but the penalties were pretty extreme. Bakers quickly decided that forking over an extra loaf for every dozen was an easy way to avoid a sentence: hence the number 13.

--note: This article was lifted from mental_floss' Saints and Sinners Issue. Be sure to check out our online store to purchase this or other back issues.

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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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