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The True Origin Stories of 7 Happy Words

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1. Terrific

The root word here is the Latin terrere, which means terror. Originally, if your aunt's cooking was terrific, you called it that because it inspired fear and dread on a life-threatening level. In the early 1800s, people began to use it facetiously, "That opera was a terrific bore!" That morphed into a meaning closer to huge or grand, and by the late 1800s it was being used as it is today, to mean good and happy. (Awful took the opposite journey, initially meaning "awe-inspiring" and worthy of fearful respect. Eventually, following the same methods and timeline, it came to mean so bad it's worthy of awe. Just … awful.)

2. Swell

This word was transformed by creeping, where one of its outermost definitions crawls forward, picking up meaning until it has turned into a whole new term. It starts with the obvious. To swell: To grow larger. To be big, inflated. Then that became a noun to describe someone who was big and inflated, an important person. (Watch enough old Twilight Zone episodes and you will eventually hear some big shot referred to as a "Swell.") Then it made the easy leap to "That's really swell!" A big deal, exciting, and important.

3. Hunky dory

One theory is that hunky dory came from the Japanese Honcho dori, which could translate roughly into "easy street." The theory says it was popularized by 19th-century white sailors who would hang out on Easy Streets looking for fun. The problem with that is the timeline: Hunky Dory was being used in America by the early 1860s, but Japan had been closed to foreign fleets (and prostitute-seeking white sailors) up until 1854. So while it is possible that the term made it from Japan all the way to popular American vernacular in six years, it's hardly a certainty. The other theory is hunky came from hunkey, which meant "everything's fine," which itself came from the old American slang hunk, which meant "safe, at home" (hunker down). Nobody's sure where dory comes into that theory.

4. Spiffy

In the mid-19th century, a spiff was a pay bonus that stores would give their salesmen for moving undesirable products. If you sold an ugly suit, you got spiffed. There was also spiflicate, which was an even older word meaning "to confound, completely overcome." So you'd spiflicate some poor shlub into buying an ugly tie and then get a spiff, which you could then put toward getting all spiffed up yourself to take your girl out. Spiffy.

5. Jolly

Jolly could come from a couple of sources. The most obvious would be the French jolie, which, depending on the century, meant, "festive, merry, amorous, pretty." Jolly is also a uniquely Christmas-y word (Old St. Nick is not hunky dory. He is jolly.), so many historians believe it could also come from variations of jol in Germanic languages. The Germanic jol means "yule," which in turn means "Christmas."

6. Tickety-Boo 

Tickety-Boo, though not used much anymore, is the happiest of British slang. An upper-class, early-20th-century British-ism for "everything is just fine," tickety-boo most likely came from the Hindustani ṭhīk hai ("all right, sir"), which is what your Indian servant might say to you when you told him to bring 'round the Bentley during the Raj. Rear Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, popularized the term in the 1940s, and it became regular slang among the Royal Navy.

7. Gnarly

The origin of gnarly is painfully obvious once someone has already revealed it to you. Gnarly comes from surfer slang of the 1960s, to describe a wave that was difficult, dangerous, and awesome. The water in the wave would literally appear gnarled, curled, and messy. If you could ride it, well, gnarly, dude.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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