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The Origins of 10 Great Insults

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Insults involving body parts, and the things that come out of them, are as old as time. PG-rated slang terms, however, usually have a richer but more obscure history. Here are the origins of some familiar insults that will make calling out all the rubes, bums, cretins, and punks in your life a more fulfilling experience.

1. Punk (n), “A worthless person.”

Punk has had a long, sordid career as an insult in the English language. Shakespeare used it as an especially dirty word for prostitute in 1602. Eventually it came to mean young male prostitutes, particularly those paired up with seasoned railroad bums. This evolved by the 1920s to mean "young, inexperienced boy.” Inexperienced soon translated to good-for-nothing and criminal. With that definition confirmed, it was ready to be adopted in the 1970s by British men in spiky leathers and mohawks screaming enraged metaphors about politics into a microphone. Now I can never listen to Johnny Rotten without thinking, “hobo’s concubine.”

2. Brat (n), “A child, typically a badly behaved one.”

The worst kind of kids in the olden days weren’t loud and spoiled. They were really, really poor. Brat as a slang term dates from the 1500s in England, and meant “beggar’s child.” Beggars often made sure their children were prominently displayed to garner more sympathy and money, which might have been particularly annoying to passersby. Bratt is also an old English word meaning “ragged garment” or “cloak.” So, brats often wore bratts, affirming that they were in fact, brats.

3. Jerk (n), “A tedious and ineffectual person.”

Steam engines were awesome—way better than sailing around Cape Horn if you needed to get from New York to California. But, since they ran on steam, they needed to be refilled with water ridiculously often. “Water-stops” were built all along the railroad lines. These were just water towers, with hanging chains that the boiler man would “jerk” to start the water flowing. Towns sprang up around many of these water-stops. Some thrived, and some were just jerk-water towns, populated with “jerks.”

4. Dunce (n), “Slow-witted or stupid person.”

Particularly a stupid, slow-learning student. By all accounts, John Duns Scotus, 15th century philosopher, had some brilliant things to say. He pioneered the idea that we had the exact same kind of goodness inside us that God did, just a lot less. Unfortunately, his followers, known as the Dunses in the century succeeding his death, were reputed to be the most stubborn, closed-minded, hair-splitting philosophizers ever to refute the existence of a chair. Mr. Scotus’ name would go down in history attached more to his pigheaded followers than to his own work.

5. Fool (n), "Silly or stupid person."

Fool started showing up in writing around 1200, riding a wave of words that flowed almost unchanged from Latin to Old French to Middle English to modern English. Now here is a joke worthy of any court jester: What do fools and blacksmith bellows have in common? Besides sharing the Latin root follis ("bag"), they’re both windbags that blow nothing but hot air. Ba dum da dum. Fool!

6. Rube (n), “An awkward unsophisticated person.”

Rube showed up around the turn of the 19th century as a slur for a gullible country boy. Its origin is similar to that of hick. Both are diminutive forms of names that were associated with country folk at the time: Rube for Reuben, Hick for Richard. A rube was just the sort of poor sap a flim-flammer might easily honeyfuggle into doling out his hard earned scratch. (See also: How to Swear Like an Old Prospector.)

7. Bum (n), “One who performs a function poorly.”

We owe the legendary German work ethic for the introduction of the word bum to mean “useless.” It’s meant “buttocks” for much longer, at least from the 13th century. But as it relates to American layabouts, the word became popular during the Civil War, when German immigrants swelled the ranks of the Yankees. The German word bummler was easily shortened to apply to any soldier not worth his ration of cornpone because he was sitting on his bum all day.

8. Barbarian (n), “Savage, vandal.”

Barbarian, if it were literally translated for modern English speakers, might be called Blahblahians. “Bar-bar” was how ancient Greeks imitated the babbling stammer of any language that wasn’t Greek. Thus barbarian came to mean the sort of lowbrow foreigners who hardly put any pornography on their pottery. Such savages.

9. Cretin (n), “A stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person.”

It’s ironic that cretin is used to describe an insensitive person, because its origin is terribly insensitive. Cretin, like spaz, is an insult that evolved from a very real and very dreadful medical condition. It comes from a word used in an 18th century Alpine dialect. The word was crestin, used to describe "a dwarfed and deformed idiot." Cretinism was caused by lack of iodine resulting in congenital hypothyroidism. Etymologists believe the word’s root, the Latin “Christian," was to be a reminder that cretins were God’s children, too.

10. Bung-hole (n), “Anus.”

Poor bung-hole, a fully legitimate word that just sounded so dirty that people began using it for prurient purposes as early as the 1600s. A bung is a cork, or plug. A bung-hole is something that needs to be stoppered by a cork, like a wine barrel or milk jug. You are still surrounded by legitimate bung-holes in your everyday modern life. But you probably already knew that.

Definitions in this article were sourced from The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology and The Online Etymology Dictionary.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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