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9 Common Words That Come From Railroad Lingo

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Since the introduction of the first working steam locomotive in Great Britain over 200 years ago, trains have been a great influence on Western culture, whether in the world of books, music, or the movies. The language of the railroad has also infused the way we speak, including words that we still use today.


Before we came to know double-header as two baseball games played in a row, it was first a firework (1869), then a railroad train with two engines (1877). While there is still debate about whether the baseball term came from fireworks or trains, the double-header trains were hugely controversial in their time. Being able to take twice as many cars on the same trip, they were used as a cost cutting measure because the railroad operators could have fewer conductors and brakemen on a train, but it resulted in much more work for the remaining crew and was far more dangerous. Their forced introduction (coupled with a wage cut) led to widespread rioting in 1877.


You might not be surprised that this term for getting distracted or off topic comes from an actual sidetrack—a secondary track or line for a train. That meaning is from about 1828; we get the figurative meaning about 30 years later.


This term that we use to describe flights or anything continuous was first used to describe trains. In the 1930s, non-stop also referred to a variety show with no intervals or intermissions.


The phrase make the grade, or succeed at something, might come from the idea of railroads going up a gradient or incline.


While most of us know a turntable as another word for a record player, it originated as a railroad term referring to a revolving platform that was used for turning trains.


Who hasn’t heard of bumper-to-bumper traffic? But without trains, this sense of bumper might not exist. Coming from the verb meaning of bump, bumper originated around 1839 to refer to the buffer of a train car. By the early 20th century, the term also meant a fender on a motor vehicle. Bumper-to-bumper also emerged as a train term before getting associated with cars; the earliest references describe ways to store train cars “bumper to bumper.”


Jerkwater meaning small or inferior comes from jerkwater train, a line not on a main railway. These trains would often have to stop in towns so small, they didn’t have a water tank, and so the crew would have to lug, or jerk, water from a creek or other natural resource. Hence also the phrase, jerkwater town.


It doesn’t take a genius to realize this term for an easy yet lucrative job or endeavor comes from railroads. But what does gravy have to do with it? According to the Word Detective, gravy the delicious dressing also meant an easy role or “easily-earned laughter or applause” in 19th century theater-speak. Starting in the early 20th century, gravy was slang for money or success, especially if easily obtained. As for gravy train, that was a 1909 term for “a short haul that paid well,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary.


Next time you clear your schedule, appreciate that if it weren’t for trains, you’d be starting your taxes over again. Originally, schedule just meant a slip of paper, and quickly became associated with the pieces of paper that you attached to the end of a longer document (hence all the schedules on your tax filings). But starting in the mid-19th century, schedule began to be associated with train time tables, and from there expanded rapidly to any form of calendar or planning that you need to get done to make sure you catch your train on time.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]