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8 Grand Yet Forgotten Profane Expressions

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Recently, I stumbled across Dorothy Rose Blumberg’s Whose What?, a book of “the American Language’s” strangest possessive axioms, like “Adam’s Apple” and “Achilles’ Heel.” Most were familiar, but some were both so strange and grand that I could only hear them being declared in Ron Burgundy’s voice (enjoy a collection of Ron’s unique expletives here). So, if you’re looking for the perfect old-fashioned curse or analogy, try some of these.

1. Expression: “Balaam’s Ass!”

Refers to: Stupidly ignoring warning signs. It comes from a Biblical story of a prophet who was sent to curse his King’s enemies, the Israelites. He rode his faithful donkey toward the Israelites until an angel appeared on the road. Only the donkey could see the angel, so she veered into a field. Balaam beat her until she was back on the road. Further down, again the angel appeared, again the ass moved aside, and was again harshly beaten. The third time the angel appeared he blocked the road entirely so they couldn’t pass. The donkey lay down in the road while Balaam beat her mercilessly. At that point the donkey looked up and asked him, “Why are you beating me? Haven’t I been a good donkey?” When Balaam agreed, yes she had, he could suddenly see the fearsome angel standing before him, sword in hand. The angel told him to proceed, and Balaam went and showered blessings upon Israel instead of curses. (Interesting note: In the entirety of the Bible, the only other time an animal spoke was Satan disguised as a serpent in the Garden of Eden).

Sample Usage: To declare your frustration when your wisdom isn’t heeded. “See! I told you the manager had fixed the surveillance camera outside the supply closet! Who am I, Balaam’s Ass over here??”

2. Expression: “Cleopatra’s War Trumpets!”

Refers to: Dangerous uselessness. Apparently, Cleopatra sent her men to the bloody battle of Actium armed with Egyptian sistrum. A sistrum is a large religious rattle—basically, a fancy stick with bells on it. When shaken, it was supposed to scare off evil spirits. “War Trumpets” were a derisive reference. No one can say whether or not they managed to ward off evil, but Egypt lost that battle, allowing Rome to become the greatest nation in the world, unopposed.

Sample Usage: Refusing to take part in any of your cousin’s ballistics tests. “Reggie, your homemade Kevlar is as about as useful as Cleopatra’s War Trumpets.”

3. Expression: “Solomon’s Ring!”

Refers to: Mastery over nature. In the traditional Islamic story, Solomon was napping in a meadow and dreamed that eight angels gave him a jewel inscribed “God is Power and Greatness.” Solomon had the jewel set into a ring, and it gave him the power to understand all animals and to control all living things, all the forces of nature, and all that was supernatural as well.

Sample Usage: Straining to compliment your neighbor’s garden after deer broke down your chicken wire fence and ate five months of your careful cultivation and tender care.  “Wow, Cynthia. Look at that garden! By Solomon’s Ring, there’s not even a single snail trail in there. How super for you.”

4. Expression: “Buridan’s Ass!”

Refers to: Suffering indecision. A 14th century French philosopher named Jean Buridan used the animal to represent a philosophical quandary. Hypothetically, the ass stood between two equally desirably bales of hay, unable to decide which one to eat. And then it starved to death because of its indecision.

Sample Usage: Taking 20 minutes to eventually settle for vanilla at Baskin Robbins, which you don’t even like. “Dangit. I’m such a Buridan’s Ass when it comes to ice cream.”

5. Expression: “Ariadne’s Thread!”

Refers to: Becoming un-lost. In Greek mythology, Athens was under obligation to send human sacrifices to Crete to be eaten by their Minotaur. Theseus, Athenian son of Poseidon, volunteered as a sacrifice. As soon as he got off the boat, Ariadne, the Greek princess, fell in love with him. She gave him a magic ball of golden thread which he used to find his way back out of the maze after killing the Minotaur. He escaped Athens with Ariadne in tow. The legend diverges there, but by most accounts he promptly ditched her on a beach, where the god Dionysus married her instead. So things pretty much evened out.

Sample Usage: Finding your car in the mall parking lot the night of December 23rd. “No Chad, I don’t remember what lot it’s in. I forgot my ball of Ariadne’s Thread when I grabbed my purse this morning.”

6. Expression: “Morton’s Fork!”

Refers to: Being trapped no matter which way you go. The expression refers to John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1491, servant to Henry VII. Henry was trying to restore the stability of the English monarchy by fighting The War of the Roses, and needed more money from his clergy to do it. (The clergy in question weren’t the impoverished monks and priests, but their wealthy bishops and cardinals). The clergy did not want to give away their money, so they took one of two approaches. Either they came in rags and said they were too poor to contribute, or they came in ridiculous finery saying they needed every penny to maintain the dignity of their position. Morton wasn’t having it. His “fork” led to a dead end, no matter which way you took. If you’re a high clergyman in rags, you’re obviously storing away all the money you extract from your underlings and beneficiaries. If you’re opulent, you’re obviously rich and can spare plenty of money for your King. Either way, hand it over.

Sample Usage: Reminding a teenager what staying home sick entails. “Morton’s Fork you’re going to play Xbox. If you’re well, you go to school, if you’re sick, you lay in bed. End of options.”

7. Expression: “Robin Hood’s Barn!”

Refers to: Taking forever to get to the point. Probably meant to call to mind the evil Sheriff of Nottingham chasing a merry Robin round and round in a fruitless effort to capture him.

Sample Usage: For the weekly board meeting that goes on 40 minutes longer than necessary. “We don’t need to keep going all around Robin Hood’s Barn here, people! Just tell Frank we all saw his internet history and that he’s fired!”

8. Expression: “Saint Wilfrid’s Needle!”

Refers to: A woman’s chastity. In the crypt of an ancient Saxon cathedral in Ripon, there is the tiniest of holes (needle) connecting the crypt to what was once the choir. It is said that a girl could prove her chastity if she were able to fit through St. Wilfrid’s Needle. (Which is logical in a way, as it appears to be impassible for anything wider than a whippet.)

Sample Usage: A classy way for women to disparage each other at parties. “I’d like to see her fit through Saint Wilfrid’s Needle.”

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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