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10 Jobs You Didn't Hear About On Career Day

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by Laurel Mills

Back in preschool, there were only a handful of sensible options for the career-minded 4-year-old. Had we heard about "sin-eating," we would have eaten more paste and focused a little less on our permanent records.

1. Filibuster

Long before the term "filibuster" came to be associated with elected officials, it was actually associated with violence and trickery. (Wait a second ...) In the 1600s, pirates known to the Dutch as vrijbuiters pillaged the West Indies, and eventually, the word was assimilated into the English language as "filibusters." Between 1850 and 1860, the name was used to refer to the American mercenaries who attempted to revolutionize Central America and the Spanish West Indies. The most famous of these filibusters was William Walker, a U.S. citizen who succeeded in gaining control of Nicaragua in 1856 by overthrowing the nation's administration. Walker became president of Nicaragua, but only until May 1, 1857, when a coalition of Central American states ousted him. Because filibusters of previous centuries strove to interfere with foreign regimes, the term evolved to refer to anyone who attempted to obstruct the government, as our legislators occasionally see fit to do when a particularly troublesome bill comes before them.

2. Lungs

Perhaps the cruelest case of naming irony in history, anyone employed to fan the fire in an alchemist's workshop was known as a "lungs." And because most alchemists were constantly trying to make gold out of lead and other such base metals, you can only imagine what kinds of dangerous materials were floating about in the labs. As a result, the actual lungs on a lungs gave out relatively quickly, leading to a profession with widespread early retirement.

3.Sin-Eater

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No matter how much you loved Grandma and Grandpa, you can probably admit your forebears weren't perfect. So, if you ever had a loved one that passed on before his or her last chance at absolution, it makes sense that you might want to call in reinforcements. Fortunately for the fretful and grieving of yore, there was the town sin-eater. For a small fee, the sin-eater would gladly scarf down a meal (usually bread and ale) that had been placed on the deceased's chest. By letting the food lie atop the dearly departed for a while, it was believed the vittles would absorb the last transgressions. And, once the food was gobbled up by the sin-eater, Grandma or Grandpa could get into heaven without any major roadblocks.

4. Knocker-Up

In British towns of yore, particularly those with a mine or mill as the center of commercial activity, knocker-ups were responsible for going from house to house to wake workers in the mornings. The title, not surprisingly, came from the sound they made rapping on windows. As for the evolution of the term "knocking," it also denoted a collision of sorts, and in the 17th century, it was used in reference to childbirth. Even poet John Keats wrote of "knocking out" children in some of his odes. It wasn't until the 19th century, however, that Americans began using the phrase as slang for getting a woman pregnant.

5. Ratoner

Ain't it grand to live in a world where the Black Death isn't a daily concern? Fortunately, when it was an issue, a ratoner was there to lend a helping hand. A ratoner was a rat catcher, who served a vital role in maintaining the health of the villagers. Those of us accustomed to modern pest control techniques might be a bit surprised to learn about the disposal method employed by a typical Victorian-era ratoner, though. After capturing the rodents, he would set out for the town pub, where dogs made a sport of devouring the day's catch. This earned extra cash for the ratoner and was considered great entertainment by saloon regulars. The most famous ratoner, Jack Black, was appointed Royal Rat Catcher in the mid-19th century and bred some of his more interesting and colorful finds as household pets. In fact, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter is said to be dedicated to her personal rat, one of Jack Black's progeny.

6. Alnager

In merry olde England, an alnager was a sworn officer of the court who garnered much esteem. He was responsible for ensuring that woolen goods were of the highest quality and that no one was being cheated on the amount of fabric ordered. The job was important not only because the king earned taxes from wool sales, but also because goods approved by the alnager carried the town's seal of approval. But, as the textile trade grew, it became nearly impossible to hold all wool to the same standards of size and density, so the king abolished the position. Today, you might know the alnager's modern incarnation best in sticker form, a.k.a., "Number 6."

7. Badger

Odd as it may sound, badgers were part of the rat race in prior centuries, serving as intermediaries between the producers of goods and the consumer. Most often, they traded in corn and other foodstuffs, buying from farmers and reselling the goods at markets in town. And if you think the salespeople at Macy's are tough, some historians think badgers were so persistent in pushing their products that the term came to be associated with an often annoying and forceful adamance—i.e., "badgering" anyone in sight to buy from you instead of another vendor.

8. Gong Farmer

Not unlike The Gong Show, a gong farmer was far from being the cream of the crop—and even that might be the understatement of the year. In Tudor England, a gong farmer's job was to empty the town toilets. But the job did have its perks. Typically, a gong farmer would "mine" the waste for any items of value that might be found amongst the city's excrement—a penny here, a button there—before it was used as manure or thrown into the river. For a while, it was falsely believed that gong farmers were immune to the plague, but you can't help wonder if that was more of a pity belief, like the whole idea that being hit by bird droppings is good luck.

9. Fuller

Making textiles hasn't always been such a streamlined process. Once upon a time, there were spinners to spin the thread, weavers to weave the cloth, and fullers to finish the goods once they came off the loom. Almost Lucy-and-Ethel style, fullers walked on the back side of the cloth to bind the fibers together and give cohesion to the newly woven fabric. But stomping alone wouldn't accomplish this feat. Instead, fullers soaked the cloth in a mixture of clay ("fuller's earth") and urine while it was being trampled. In fact, medieval housewives often earned extra cash by saving the family's urine and selling it to the fuller, and some schools even had children use one bucket as a toilet for the same purpose.

10. Bullocky

It sounds like Lewis Carroll came up with this word around the same time he was writing "Jabberwocky", but a bullocky was actually a person who drove cattle to market. Yet, the bullocky and the Jabberwock might share something in common—nonsense. According to some historians, to say bullocks swore like sailors would be an insult to sailors. In fact, it was the bullocks' foul mouths that led the term to be associated with bastardized speech. That, combined with the fact that they worked with "bull" (which had the same connotations we know today), could have helped bullocky evolve into a term for ridiculous or dispensable speech.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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]

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