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Please Pass the Earth Apples: Thanksgiving Dinner Etymology

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In middle-school geography class, our teachers told us that the country of Turkey was not named after the bird. What they didn’t mention was that the bird may well be named after the country.

Soon after the Spanish introduced turkeys from the New World, British traders who brought turkeys back from an expedition to the Turkish empire took to calling them "Turkey birds." Whether the fowl the traders brought back was American turkey or guinea fowl from Africa is debatable, but the name stuck. ?

The names of other foods weighing down our Thanksgiving tables have equally intriguing back-stories:

Putting the “cran” in cranberries

When early settlers saw the shape of cranberry’s pink blooms, they were reminded of a crane’s head and neck, and called them "craneberries." No word on why that silent ‘e’ was so cumbersome it had to be dropped.

I yam what I yam

When is a yam not a yam? When it's a sweet potato. While sweet potatoes, particularly when canned, are often called yams, they are not yams at all. Yams grow in Africa and are not found in the United States. Farmers popularized the word when trying to distinguish their new orange-fleshed sweet potatoes from earlier ?yellow varieties. ??

Geo-melon and gravy

While it’s tempting to accuse the French of trying to sex up an ugly tuber by calling a potato a “pomme de terre” – literally, “earth apple” – it’s far from the only language that does so. The Dutch “aardappel,” Austrian “erdapfel,” Finnish “maaomena,” Czech “zamnak,” Polish “zemniak,” and the fabulously weird Greek “geo-melon” all translate to “earth apple.” All this despite the fact that a potato is about as much like an apple as a grapefruit is like a grape. ??

Dressed or stuffed?

Much like the yam/sweet potato conundrum, dressing and stuffing are improperly used as synonyms. Chefs say that stuffing is only stuffing when it has been cooked inside a bird. Cooked on the stove or in a casserole dish, it’s dressing, which is not only problematic for Stove Top Stuffing but just plain odd when you consider that “dressing” a bird means plucking and gutting it in preparation for stuffing. ??

Finally, a reason for pearl onions

As unlikely as it seems, onion shares a root word with union. The Latin “unio” (oneness, unity) was also used for large pearls, which makes sense, as pearls look a lot like onions – especially those pearl onions that no one will touch the other 364 days of the year. (As long as we’re on both topics, it bears mentioning that the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology was penned by Charles Talbut Onions.)

?A ‘dirt boat’ just doesn’t sound the same

You might go easier on the gravy once you know the word’s likely origins: The Old Swedish “grefwar” (literally, dirt). The word refers to the sediment of melted tallow left over from candlemaking, which has a certain unappetizing similarity to the melted fat used to make gravy. But, hey, never mind all that and pass the dirt boat – my earth apples are getting cold.


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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]