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Jive Talkin’: The Origins of Cool Dudes, Groovy Chicks and Hip Cats

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How long have the fashionable people been referred to as "cool"? Where did the word "dude" come from? Here's a look at the origins of six calmly audacious words.

1. Cool

Cool, as a moderate version of cold, has been around for centuries. But by the early 1700s, it was also being applied to large sums of money to emphasize amounts, as in “That’ll cost you a cool million.” In 1732, the phrase “cool as a cucumber” appeared in a poem describing a man’s unflappable demeanor. A dictionary from 1825 lists “calmly audacious” as a definition of cool. By 1918, a Random House slang dictionary was defining cool as “urbane” or “sophisticated.” But cool really blossomed in the 1940s and 50s, amongst jazz musicians, as a way to describe great playing. It even came to describe a style of jazz, as popularized by Miles Davis - a laid-back sound, hushed but intense. Today, of course, cool is alive and well everywhere. As an indication, a Google search of the word produces over 3 billion results.

2. Dude

Dude first appeared on the scene in the late 19th century, most likely as a variation of “dud” — Victorian slang for an article of clothing. You still occasionally hear it today, as in “Hey, nice duds.” So, the original dudes were dandies, well-off young gents known for their fancy dress and wanton ways. Some years later, dude cropped up in the Western United States as a derogatory term for any city-dwelling visitor to cowboy country. It was just another way to say city slicker, and “dude ranches” were places that gave those slickers a little taste of life in the wild west. By the 1930s, dude was being used interchangeably with guy and fella, as a generic term for man. Thirty years later, it made a comeback amongst California surfers, who revived it with expressions like, “Cowabunga, dude” (and while we’re here, cowabunga was coined by the writers of The Howdy Doody Show, for the character Chief Thunderthud). Dude got additional pushes via the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the ‘80s and The Big Lebowski in the ‘90s. Today it’s a seemingly permanent generic term for a person of either sex ("dudette" never quite caught on).

3. Groovy

First heard amongst jazz musicians in the 1920s, groovy — or groovey — was a word used to describe music that was played with feeling and finesse. It was based on the phrase “in the groove,” which referred to the way a phonograph needle on a record player followed the grooves of a record. To be groovy was to be in perfect sync with the music. Strangely, in 1947, 20th Century Fox used the word in a promo trailer to describe and promote the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. The word made a major comeback in the 1960s, of course, as a kind of generic for anything good, as when Simon & Garfunkel famously sang, “Life I love you, all is groovy.” The Austin Powers films brought the word back again in the ‘90s, in a kitschy way. And kitschy is what groovy will probably remain.

4. Chick

Chick image via Shutterstock

As a term of endearment for kids, chick had been around since the 14th century. But as a specific reference to a young woman, it is thought to have first appeared in print in Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry: “... he didn't want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick, who would be of no help in impressing rich parishioners.” Again, it’s a word that was popular amongst jazz musicians in the 1930s and 40s, as in, “Dig that trio with a chick singer.” And by the way, dig — as in look at, or check out — was also a word that came from the fertile ground of the jazz scene.

5. Hip / Hep

Image via Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry

Hip or Hep. Which came first? Apparently, hep, appearing in the early 20th century. It meant in-the-know or fashionable, and was popular amongst jazz musicians. But its origin is mysterious. One theory traces it to army drill instructors, who yelled out marching cadences with “Hep, two, three, four.” The thought was that to be hep was then to be in step. A second theory connects it to the phrase “on the hip,” which meant “to use, or be addicted to opium.” It referred to the reclining posture of addicts in opium dens. Because opium was illegal and the dens were like speakeasies, “on the hip” was slang for “having inside knowledge.” Yet another theory says that it was brought into our language by slaves, as it’s connected to a West African word “hipi,” which means “to open one’s eyes.” Hipster first made the scene in the 1940s, to describe fans of bebop jazz. Hippie came along in the 1960s, as a term for any youth that embraced the counterculture. Hipster and hip have survived, while hep and hippie are heard much less these days, as is the ultra-rare heppie.

6. Cat

Would you rather be a dude or a cat? If it was the 1920s, definitely a cat. A dude was square. A cat was cool. Again, it’s the world of jazz that gave us this word for fellow or guy. It’s likely that it has some connection to the feline pet, for the popular conception of a jazz musician could be said to possess many similar qualities to a cat — quick on his feet, resourceful, but with a languid, slightly aloof quality.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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