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7 Burning Halloween Questions: Answered!

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As you put the finishing touches on your costume and stock up on candy for the neighborhood kids, let's take a minute to reflect on the origin of some popular Halloween traditions.

1. WHO STARTED HALLOWEEN?

Halloween got its start thousands of years ago, and we can thank the Celts for getting things going. They celebrated a holiday known as Samhain on October 31, one of the four "quarter days" of the calendar, and possibly the Celtic New Year. They believed that the dead could walk the earth on Samhain and cause mischief but, on the plus side, their presence also made it easier for the Druid priests to predict the future.

2. WHY DO WE WEAR COSTUMES?

On Samhain, a big bonfire would be built and sacrifices made to the dead, while the common folk would dress up in animal skins and try to tell their own fortunes (probably with the same success rate as the "professionals"). The costumes, Halloween's most enduring tradition, were donned either to calm the spirits or to blend in with them, so as to not incur their wrath.

3. HOW DID SAMHAIN BECOME HALLOWEEN?

Starting in 43 CE, the Roman war machine rolled through Britain and conquered a large chunk of the Celtic population. But the Romans, always the master conquerors, cleverly blended two of their own holidays with the Celtic Samhain to make the transition to Roman rule more seamless. One holiday was a celebration of the dead (easy enough to mix with Samhain) and the other was a celebration of the Pomona, the goddess of fruit and tress, where, supposedly, the tradition of bobbing for apples takes root.

When Christianity arrived on the scene, the hodgepodge holiday again was forced to change. Like the previous blending, the Christians incorporated their own holidays into the Samhain tradition. November 1 became All-hallow's, a day to celebrate the saints and martyrs, and October 31 became All-hallow's Even ("Even" being short for "evening," and providing the "n" in "Halloween"). Through the magic of etymology, All-hallow's Even became Halloween.

4. HOW DID WE GET FROM BONFIRES AND DEAD SAINTS TO PLASTIC MASKS AND CANDY CORN?

Why, the Americans of course!

But it didn't happen right away. Puritans in New England suppressed the superstitious holiday. In the South, however, where religious piety was less important, Halloween was celebrated in much the same way it was in Europe. But a great tide of immigration in the late 1800s brought a new life to the holiday, and no amount of piety could contain it. Through the years, the "spookiness" of Halloween was replaced with a more wholesome community feel, out of which grew trick-or-treating and, as towns celebrated together, stripped any religious significance away. Finally, after many thousands of years and many cultural modifications, we arrived at a holiday involving witches, costumes, candy, mischief, the deceased and pumpkins.

5. WAIT, WHERE DO PUMPKINS FIT IT?

Making vegetable lanterns can be traced back to Great Britain and Ireland, where carving turnips, beets and potatoes had been a fall tradition for many centuries. According to an Irish myth, a man named Stingy Jack once had a drink with the Devil and, when he didn't want to pay for it, he convinced the Devil to turn into a coin. However, Stingy Jack lived up to his name and pocketed the coin next to a cross, keeping the Devil locked in a monetary state until he struck a deal with Jack to leave him alone and not claim his soul for Hell upon his death. When Jack did die, Heaven rejected him and, true to his word, so did the Devil.

As punishment for his trickery, the Devil sent Jack out to wander the earth forever with a single coal in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way. To Irish children he was Jack of the Lantern or, as the Irish are wont to do when confronted with an "of the," Jack O'Lantern.

But Jack-o'-Lanterns were not a part of Halloween celebrations in Britain; it would take a new continent to cement that tradition. The first mention of a Jack-o'-Lantern being part of a Halloween celebration comes from a Canadian paper which, in 1866, wrote, "The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle."

6. WHY DID PUMPKINS BEAT OUT TURNIPS, BEETS AND POTATOES?

Simple. Pumpkins abounded in America and were much better for carving and illuminating than any of the aforementioned veggies. We can assume the tradition of smashing pumpkins originated very soon after the carved pumpkin entered the Halloween celebration in the late 1800s.

7. WHERE DOES CANDY CORN COME FROM?

Like Christmas and the candy cane and Easter with its marshmallow Peeps, Halloween, too, has a signature sweet: the mysterious candy corn. Like some annual plague, the small cone-shaped candies infect our stores and molars each year before vanishing as quickly as they came. Comedian Lewis Black has a theory about candy corn: "All the candy corn that was ever made was made in 1914. They never had to make it again. We never eat enough of it. We only eat two or three or four pieces apiece. So, literally, after Halloween the candy corn companies send out their minions. And they go from garbage can to garbage can and collect the corn and throw it back in the bags. And it appears next year." Good theory, but not quite right.

Nobody knows who invented candy corn, but we do know it began to appear in the 1880s, and we know the first company to make it commercially was the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia. Soon after, the Goelitz Confectionery Company began production of candy corn in Cincinnati in 1898. The process at first was daunting: a candy blend was mixed up, heated and then poured by hand into molds. Each mold needed three separate pours to achieve the tri-color glory that is candy corn. Today the process is mechanized and the tri-color composition isn't nearly as impressive as it was to the people of the 19th century, but Goelitz has never changed the recipe and they continue to make the candy to this day. The Goelitz Confectionery Company even went on to invent another fairly popular candy a few decades later, although they had to change the company name to do so. Today they are known as Jelly Belly.

All images via iStock.

This story originally ran in 2008.

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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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May 23, 2017
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