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12 Words and Phrases that were Popularized in the Funny Pages

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Facebook.com/Caspar-Milquetoast

Once upon a time, newspaper comic strips were as influential in molding American pop culture (and the way we spoke) as television and social media are today. Odds are we’ll still be using many of these terms long after we’ve stopped describing people as “sponge-worthy” and dismissing them by saying “talk to the hand.”

1. Goon

The word “goon” to describe a simpleton or stupid person dates back to the 16th century, when sailors sometimes compared folks to the albatross, often colloquially referred to as the “gooney bird.” But “goon,” when used to describe a muscular, not-so-bright, hired thug, comes from E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre (aka Popeye) comic strip. Alice the Goon, an eight-foot tall giantess with hairy forearms, debuted in 1933. She was a minion of the vicious Sea Hag and used her brute strength to do the Sea Hag’s bidding.

2. Wimpy

Another of Segar's characters that has entered the American lexicon is hamburger-loving J. Wellington Wimpy. While the word “wimp” is from World War I, the soft-spoken, intelligent but somewhat cowardly Wimpy gave us a way to describe being a wimp. He also became famous as somewhat of a moocher, thanks to his famous promise “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

3. Dagwood Sandwich

A Dagwood is any stacked sandwich that consists of a variety of meats, cheeses, and other condiments. Readers have watched Dagwood Bumstead build these gastronomic wonders out of anything and everything he can find in the refrigerator since he married Chic Young’s Blondie in 1933.

4. Milquetoast

How do you describe someone who is even wimpier than Wimpy? Someone who makes George McFly look like Chuck Norris? That guy’s a total milquetoast, as in Caspar Milquetoast, a mild-mannered (to the extreme) character from a one-panel comic strip by H.T. Webster called The Timid Soul. Caspar’s surname was a play on the bland dish called milktoast that was often served to invalids or folks with “nervous” stomachs. Caspar Milquetoast was a guy who’d go buy a new hat rather than trespass when his chapeau blew off his head and onto a lawn bearing a “Keep Off the Grass” sign.

5. Mutt and Jeff

Mutt and Jeff were two comic strip characters created by Bud Fisher in 1907. Augustus Mutt was a tall, lanky ne’er-do-well who liked to bet on the ponies, while his pal Othello Jeff was short, rotund and shared Mutt's passion for “get rich quick” schemes. The strip became so popular that “Mutt and Jeff” entered the lexicon to describe any duo displaying opposite physical characteristics.

6. Keeping up with the Joneses

You’ve probably heard this expression a hundred times and occasionally wondered just who these Jones folks were. Guess what? Even in the comic strip of their origin, they were never seen! Keeping Up with the Joneses was written/drawn by Arthur “Pop” Momand and was first published in the New York Globe in 1913. The strip followed the daily life of the Aloysius P. McGinnis family, and Mrs. McGinnis’ envy of their wealthy neighbors, the Joneses. Poor Aloysius endured his wife outfitting him in “trendy” clothing like lime-green spats and lemon-colored gloves because that’s how Mr. Jones dressed.

7. Worrywart

Today we describe a person who frets about anything and everything as a “worrywart,” but the phrase originated with a carefree character whose reckless behavior turned those around him into a bundle of nerves. Artist J.R. Williams debuted a one-panel cartoon called Out Our Way in 1922, and eventually the strip was carried by more than 700 newspapers. Out Our Way was an umbrella title for a variety of slice-of-life illustrations that often had a recurring theme, as evidenced in the subtitles: “Why Mothers Get Gray,” “Born 30 Years Too Soon,” “Heroes Are Made, Not Born,” “The Bull of the Woods” (which was set in a machine shop), and “The Worry Wart.” The latter panel featured an 8-year-old boy who got into more mischief than Dennis the Menace.

8. Heebie-Jeebies

Billy DeBeck introduced Barney Google to the comics world in 1919, and as the strip gained popularity, he also gifted the American lexicon with a variety of fanciful words and phrases, including “googly-eyed” to describe someone with Barney’s wide, Homer Simpson-esque peepers. Barney’s retired racehorse Spark Plug was so beloved that Charles Schulz and countless other youngsters of that era were christened with the nickname “Sparky.” It was Sparky, in fact, who gave Barney such an off-putting stare on one occasion (in an October 1923 strip) that the man shuddered, “You dumb ox, why doncha get that stupid look offa your pan—you gimme the heeby-jeebys!” DeBeck also gave us “hotsy-totsy” and “horsefeathers,” though those phrases are rarely heard anymore outside of M*A*S*H reruns that feature Colonel Potter.

9. Sadie Hawkins Day/Dance

At the U.S. schools that still recognize it, Sadie Hawkins Day is a gender-reversal “holiday” on which females have the option to invite the male of their choice on a date or to a special dance. Not such a big deal today, but back in 1937, when Al Capp first introduced the concept, the very idea of such boldness on a young woman’s part sent many matrons reaching for their smelling salts. According to the Li’l Abner comic strip, on Sadie Hawkins Day (now traditionally November 13), all the bachelors of Dogpatch gather and start running when the starting pistol is fired. When a second shot is fired, the unmarried women give chase, and any man who was caught and dragged across the finish line was obliged to marry the fleet-footed lady.

10. Dinty Moore

Both the Hormel canned stew and the triple-decker corned beef/lettuce/tomato/Russian dressing sandwich that bear this name were inspired by the tavern owner in the popular George McManus comic strip Bringing Up Father. Maggie and Jiggs, the main characters, were Irish-American immigrants who won a million dollars in a sweepstakes. “Lace-curtain Irish” Maggie eagerly adapted to their nouveau rich lifestyle, but former bricklayer Jiggs missed his boisterous pals and frequently sneaked off to hang with them at Dinty Moore’s, where they’d feast on corned beef and cabbage and Irish stew while enjoying a tipple or two.

11. Sad Sack

This phrase, used to describe an inept clod who usually fails despite his good intentions, has its roots in the military—but in the Army circa World War II, the full phrase given to misfits who failed to shape up was “sad sack of (bad word).” Sgt. George Baker began submitting cartoons to Yank, The Army Weekly that starred a bumbling private identified only as “The Sad Sack.” Sad Sack became a pop culture icon among the soldiers, many of whom identified with the character’s misadventures. After the war ended, Sad Sack was picked up by a syndicate and his popularity only grew as his struggle to adapt to civilian life was documented in newspapers and comic books.

12. Double Whammy

Has anyone ever stared at you so intently and creepily that you accused them of putting a whammy on you? You can thank Al Capp’s Evil-Eye Fleagle for that. His zoot-suited character Evil-Eye Fleagle was not a resident of Dogpatch (like the other Li’l Abner characters) but rather a hood who hailed from Brooklyn, New York. And Fleagle had a unique ability: He could shoot beams of destruction from his eyes. A regular whammy could knock a dozen men unconscious, while the dreaded double whammy could fell a skyscraper.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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