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10 Vocab Words from ‘The Big Lebowski’

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By Susie Tae, California State University Northridge

Quote The Big Lebowski, and you’ll likely get a lot of laughs and knowing looks. But Lebowski isn't just a comedy about the misadventures of a lovable stoner—the movie uses sophisticated words and concepts for some intellectual humor. Use any of these 10 words in casual conversation, and you can hold your head up high.

1. MICTURATE

Meaning “to urinate,” we first meet the Dude as thugs harass him and, well, “micturate” on his rug. In a case of mistaken identity, the Dude visits the other Lebowski to seek compensation. But what he gets is an unsympathetic Big Lebowski, who mocks him for his attire and attitude towards life. The offended Big Lebowski asks, “Every time a rug is micturated upon in this fair city, I have to compensate…?”

2. NIHILIST

If you thought being a nihilist means passing out on floating pool lounges, read on. While there are several forms of nihilism, the most common, existential nihilism, argues that there is no intrinsic meaning, purpose or value in life. While German nihilists are behind much of the hijinks in the movie, their battle cry (“We believe in nossink!”) is contradicted in the end by their whining at the unfairness of no payout. Clearly not nihilists, this unfortunately makes losing a toe and an ear much harder to bear.

3. SHABBOS

Shabbos (Yiddish), also known as Shabbat (Hebrew), is the Jewish day of rest. Shabbos begins just before sunset on Friday evening and ends Saturday evening, and can be honored by meditating on spiritual matters and spending time with family. Walter, who converted to Judaism, observes Shabbos by not working, not driving, not riding in a car, not handling money, not turning on an oven, and definitely by not bowling. Walter even doesn’t answer the phone on Shabbos, unless it’s an emergency—which it was, which was why Walter picked up the phone.

4. FATUOUS

Adult films are not known for their complicated plots. So when Maude shows a scene where a cable repair man complains of difficulty working in his clothes, Maude comments, “You can imagine what happens next.” The Dude replies, “He fixes the cable?” and Maude asks him not to be fatuous, meaning “silly and pointless.” But of course, that’s why we love the Dude.

5. PARLANCE

Meaning “a particular way of speaking,” parlance is used twice in reference to Bunny Lebowski, the much younger wife of the Big Lebowski. The first relates to her relationship with known pornographer Jackie Treehorn, who Bunny is said to be sleeping with. The second is in the Dude’s explanation of Bunny’s role in her kidnapping. As a "trophy wife" and needing money, the Dude tries to reason that Bunny faked her own kidnapping. That did not occur to the Big Lebowski.

6. FASCIST

One who believes that government reigns and use of force is necessary and good to ensure that power, the term fascist is now more often used as an insult. The Dude calls the police chief a fascist after the chief throws a mug at his head for back talk. Do I make myself clear? Or were you not listening?

7. PARAQUAT

Upset at being exploited, the Dude calls the Big Lebowski a human paraquat for stealing $1 million and pinning it on him. Paraquat, which is actually an herbicide that’s also poisonous to humans and animals, may be known by the Dude because of the Mexican marijuana fields sprayed by the U.S. government with paraquat during the 1970s. Ironically, plant material sprayed with the toxic paraquat is actually safe to smoke because of its burning. So no worries Dude.

8. NOMENCLATURE

In non-political correctness, the term "Chinaman" is used to describe various Asians throughout the movie. Early on, the Dude complains of the "Chinaman" who peed on his rug, the rug that really tied the room together. Walter, in his unfailing desire for what’s right, clarifies that Asian-American is the preferred nomenclature, meaning “term applied to someone or something within a system of naming.” The Big Lebowski also uses "Chinaman" for the soldier in Korea who shot him during the war. Clearly both Lebowskis could use some sensitivity training.

9. PACIFIST

A pacifist is someone who believes that war and violence are unjustifiable. After having threatened a fellow bowler with a gun, Walter is scolded by the Dude for his behavior. The Dude informs Walter that the bowler was a pacifist, and has emotional problems. Walter shares that like the fellow bowler, he too was once a pacifist. But not in Vietnam, of course.

10. STRUMPET

A term for a promiscuous woman, Walter uses it in reference to Bunny in a rant about how good men died face-down in the muck in Vietnam. Throughout much of the movie, Walter references Vietnam every chance he gets, literal connection or otherwise.

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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