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How We Came to Make Wishes on These 11 Things

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Happy 11/11! Today is considered a lucky day for the superstitious, and a great day to make a wish if you happen to catch the clock when it hits 11:11. Almost everyone has made a wish on a coin before dropping it into a well or before blowing away an eyelash, but where did those traditions come from?

1. Birthday candles

You can probably thank the Ancient Greeks for putting candles on cakes. Baked goods were brought to the temple of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon, as offerings; they were adorned with candles to signify the glow of the moon. It was believed that smoke was a vehicle to bring prayers to the gods; that might be the origin of wishing while blowing out candles.

The first birthday cake is believed to be from Germany in the middle ages. Young children would receive these treats for their birthdays in a celebration called Kinderfest. Candles were placed on the cake—one for each year of life, and an extra candle for the coming year—to represent the “light of life.” The superstition is to blow out the candles and make a silent wish.

2. Eyelashes

Wishing on eyelashes was common folklore in the mid-19th century. A fallen eyelash is placed on the back of the hand before the wisher throws it over their shoulder. If the eyelash gets stuck, the wish does not come true. A Cornish schoolgirl version dictates that the eyelash should be placed on the tip of the nose; if she blows it off, she'll get her wish.

3. Shooting stars

Ptolemy, Greco-Egyptian writer and astronomer, believed that shooting stars were a sign that the gods were looking down and listening to wishes.

4. Ladybugs

Ladybugs get their name from the Virgin Mary, who was often portrayed in a red cloak in medieval times. The beetle’s redness represented her cloak, and the black spots were her sorrows. The bugs have long been a symbol of a good harvest, likely due to their knack for eating pests that would harm crops. Farmers would pray to the Virgin Mary to protect their crops, and if ladybugs appeared, the crops would be saved, seemingly miraculously.

Thanks to farmers, ladybugs are considered good luck; if one lands on you, it is believed to grant you a wish.

5. 11:11

The origin of society’s fascination with this number sequence is murky at best, but it’s safe to say it has to do with its satisfying symmetry. Numerologists like Uri Geller believe that the number follows people and occurs too frequently to be coincidence. Geller and like-minded New Age philosophers believe that the numbers hold a mystic power. Skeptics dismiss this theory as confirmation bias, but the trend continues nonetheless.

6. White horses

In the mid-19th century, many British children believed that if you crossed paths with a white horse, you could make a wish. Others would count the white horses they saw and would make a wish after reaching a hundred. Children’s author Alison Uttley grew up in Derbyshire in the 1890s, and had a more complicated version: a hundred white horses, a fiddler, a blind man, and a chimney sweep combined would grant a wish.

7. Wishbones

The origin of wishbones dates back to the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization. Believing chickens to hold prophetic powers, the Etruscans would perform a ritual called alectryomancy, or “rooster divination.” Chickens were placed in the middle of a circle divided into wedges (one for each letter of the alphabet). Bits of food were scattered on each section, and scribes would take note of each wedge the chickens snacked from. The letters were then taken to the local priests, who would use the information to answer the city’s questions about the future. It was sort of like an ancient Ouija board.

After the oracle chicken was killed, the wishbone, or furcula, was laid out in the sun to be preserved. People would come to stroke and wish on the bone, believing it to retain the powers of the living chicken. The Romans eventually picked up this tradition, but gave it their own twist: Due to a high demand for the bones, two people would share one and break it in half. The owner of the larger half got their wish.

8. Dandelions

Young girls commonly used dandelions in the 1800s for romantic and oracular purposes. It was believed that if you blew on a dandelion and all the seeds flew away, your loved one returned the feelings; if any seeds remained, they might have reservations or no feelings at all. Children would blow on these flowers while thinking hard about the objects of their affection. Eventually this tradition spread to encompass all wishing, romantic or otherwise.

9. Leprechauns

Leprechauns are mischievous mythological creatures that will supposedly grant you three wishes if you catch one. The ancient Irish folklore can trace its roots back to small river spirits known as luchorpáns, or “small body.” The spirits eventually morphed into the little green-suited men we know today.

A popular folk etymology is that the word comes from the Irish leath bhrogan, or shoemaker. Leprechauns were once thought to be humble cobblers who made a decent living and each had their own pot of gold.

10. Wishing well

According to European folklore, wishing wells were homes for deities, or gifts from gods. Water is a valuable commodity; many early European tribes treated wells as shrines and often placed small statues of gods nearby. People would come to the wells to pray and ask for assistance from the gods. Although the idea that gods are watching over wells has faded with history, the tradition of making wishes and giving an offering (usually a coin) continues.

11. First star

Most people have grown up knowing the following rhyme:

Star light star bright,
The first star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

The rhyme dates back to America in the late 19th century. Mothers would sing the rhyme to their children when putting them to bed. Later, the rhyme inspired the song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from the 1940 Disney movie, Pinocchio.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]