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From lynching to dunces: 10 Awful Words and the people they're named for

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from lynching to chauvinism:

10 Awful Words and the People They're Named For

by Mark Peters

We all want to live forever. But, chances are, you'd rather forego a legacy altogether than have your name be synonymous with a goofy flub like a spoonerism or a dim-witted word like "dunce." For the following 10 eponyms, we ask: Did these word-inspiring folks really deserve their drag through the linguistic mud?

1. dunce

TressGirlDunceCap.jpgDictionaries don't play fair, and John Duns Scotus is proof. The 13th/14th-century thinker, whose writings synthesized Christian theology and Aristotle's philosophy, was considerably less dumb than a brick. Unfortunately for Scotus, subsequent theologians took a dim view of all those who championed his viewpoint. These "Scotists," "Dunsmen," or "Dunses" were considered hairsplitting meatheads and, eventually, just "dunces."

2.(slipping a) Mickey

Lynching, shrapnel, chauvinism, the original Mickey and more all after the jump...

When you have to drug somebody against their will (hey, you gotta do what you gotta do), it just wouldn't sound right to slip 'em a Ricardo, a Bjorn, or an Evelyn. It's gotta be a Mickey. At the turn of the 20th century, Mickey Finn was a Chicago saloon owner in one of the seediest parts of town—and he fit right in. Finn was known for serving "Mickey Finn Specials," which probably included chloral hydrate, a heavy sedative. After targeted customers passed out, Finn would haul them into his "operating room" and liberate them of all valuables (including shoes). Never a Host of the Year candidate, this Mickey seems to have thoroughly earned his legacy, so don't hesitate to use it the next time you drug and rob your own customers.

3. spoonerism

Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844"“1930) was famous for his muddled one-liners. And though it's hard to know which ones he actually said, lines such as "I have a half-warmed fish" and "Yes indeed, the Lord is a shoving leopard" still prove that the sound-switching flub is pretty charming as far as mistakes go. The spoonerism has even been used as a literary technique by poets and fiction writers, giving Spooner little reason to roll over—or otherwise inarticulately protest—in his grave.

4. lynch

Although several Lynches (not including David) have been investigated by inquisitive etymologists, Virginia native Charles Lynch (1736"“1796) is most likely the man behind the murderous word. Lynch was a patriot, a planter, and a judge. But when he headed a vigilante court to punish Tories (British loyalists) during the American Revolution, he decided to play the roles of jury and executioner, too. Lynch has more than earned his besmirched name. In fact, he did half the besmirching himself by egotistically referring to his actions as "lynch law" and "lynching."

5. shrapnel

shrapnel.jpgWhile battling Napoleon's army, English General Henry Shrapnel (1761"“1842) noticed that original-flavor cannonballs just weren't massacring enough enemies for his liking. So, to get more shebang for his shilling, he filled the cannonballs with bullets and exploding charges. These "shrapnel shells," or "shrapnel-barrages," were pretty darn effective, and later designs proved even more successful in World War I. Shrapnel didn't get much credit for the "innovation" during his lifetime, but he ultimately contributed to enough death and misery that he pretty much deserves to be synonymous with a violent, metallic byproduct of combat.

6. draconian

A Lexis-Nexis news search shows that folks are still talking about "draconian policies," "draconian penalties," and, most frighteningly, "draconian sex rules." Though Athenian lawgiver Draco is not entirely confirmed to have existed, if he were real, then around 621 B.C.E., he instituted two time-honored traditions: 1) writing laws down and 2) making laws that were batcrap-insane. They include ascribing the death penalty to such atrocities as being lazy, whizzing in an alley, and stealing an apple. Apparently, he justified his measures with a sort of non-logic along the lines of, "Jaywalkers deserve to die, and I can't do anything worse to mass murderers. So what're you gonna do?"

7. Boycott

In a nutshell? Boycott got boycotted. Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832"“1897) was a retired English army captain who claimed his unwanted fame in 1880 when the Irish Land League decided to punish him for not lowering his rents. This then-new strategy, which was a mere paragraph in the Russian-novel-size saga of Irish land reform, was a kind of systematic shunning in which Boycott was cut off from servants, supplies, mail, and lifestyle free of death threats. He might have been an evil landlord, but if Boycott could see just how successful his name became, he'd probably be a very sad, regretful, evil landlord.

8. bogart (the joint)

Picture 11.pngIn his films, Humphrey Bogart smoked enough cigarettes to choke a chimney, so it's no surprise he inspired an eponym that usually means "to monopolize the marijuana." More specifically though, the word referred to Bogart's style of smoking—letting each cigarette dangle off his lips for a long time. The term has some flexibility though, ever since Homer Simpson uttered one of the most notable non-drug-related uses of "bogart" in recent memory. To defend Marge from the advances of amorous bikers, Homer said, "My wife is not a doobie to be passed around! I took a sacred vow on my wedding day to bogart her forever." Mmm "¦ bogart.

9. Tawdry

The story of St. Audrey (also known as St. Etheldreda) is a classic example of how bad names happen to good people. St. Audrey was the daughter of the king of East Anglia (then the Norfolk section of Anglo-Saxon England), who lived a monastery-founding, self-abdicating life. But, when she died of the plague in 679, she was sporting a pretty nasty-looking tumor on her neck, which gossipmongers blamed on her penchant for wearing audacious necklaces in her youth. After her death, silk scarves called "St. Audrey laces" were sold in her honor at Ely's annual St. Audrey's Fair. Then the British tendency for dropping letters and syllables took over, and Audrey became "tawdry." It was a short trip from there to the dictionary, and tawdry has been synonymous with gaudy ever since.

10. chauvinism

Nicolas Chauvin was an early 19th"“century French soldier who was so patriotic and nationalistic, he gave patriotism and nationalism a bad name—or at least a new name. A slave to the cult of Napoleon, Chauvin shed his fair share of blood for the emperor. How did Napoleon show his appreciation? By giving Chauvin a ceremonial saber, a ribbon, and a pittance of a pension. Later, however, French dramatists began basing über-patriotic characters on Chauvin, which paved the way for the soldier's ultimate reward: a dubious spot in the English language.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]