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A Brief History of "Auld Lang Syne"

Every New Year’s Eve, after the champagne has been popped, the ball has dropped, and everyone is feeling very merry indeed, revelers queue up the same song they’ve been queuing up for decades. You know the one—it makes you cry, even though you don’t understand it and know almost none of the words.

A handful of options pop up when you search for the meaning of “auld lang syne”: "times/days gone by," “old time’s sake,” “long long times/ago,” and even “once upon a time” among them. The most common consensus is something like “for old time’s sake,” which is about as direct an interpretation as you can get, as the word-for-word translation is “old long since.” The line about “for auld lang syne” is essentially, “for (the sake of) old times.” (For the record, it never says the totally nonsensical “for the sake of auld lang syne.”) Beyond the words themselves, there’s even less agreement about exactly how the tune came to be a New Year’s Eve tradition.

The song originated as a poem, but it probably wasn’t written by Robert Burns as is commonly believed—at least not entirely. The poet was simply the first person to write down an old Scottish folk song (it bears more than a passing resemblance to “Old Long Syne,” a ballad that was printed by James Watson in 1711). Burns himself said, “I took it down from an old man,” and whether it was transcribed or co-authored, it’s safe to say that the “Auld Lang Syne” we know today is some combination of an old poem and Burns’ creative input.

In any case, Burns sent a copy of the poem to a friend in 1788 and wrote: "There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians!" Later he contributed it to the Scots Musical Museum.

Five years later, Burns wrote to James Johnson, who was assembling a book of old Scottish songs: "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man."

It’s unclear whether Johnson linked Burns to the song in his credits, but by the time the book was published in 1796, the poet was dead. He’d never know that those words would eventually help secure his own cultural immortality.

The words aren’t the only element that evolved over the years; it’s believed that the original tune is different than the one we drunkenly hum along to today. Originally, the song had a more traditional folk sound, one that can be heard in (of all things) 2008’s Sex and the City movie. This version is still performed today, but with much less frequency than the New Year standard. The melody we all know was used at the suggestion of music publisher George Thompson.

How then, did a Scottish folk song with a murky provenance and nothing at all to do with New Year’s Eve become associated with the holiday? It’s largely thanks to bandleader Guy Lombardo. In 1929, Lombardo and his band played “Auld Lang Syne” as transitional music while performing at New York City's Roosevelt Hotel during a New Year’s Eve broadcast. It was played just after midnight, and heard over radio and television airwaves, inadvertently spawning a global tradition.  

Today, “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the most recognizable songs around the world, where it's played at funerals, celebrations, and as a warning that closing time is approaching at stores throughout Japan.

To impress your date this New Year’s Eve, learn the the correct words here—and don’t worry too much about the meaning. As Sally Albright says: “Anyway, it’s about old friends.”

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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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