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Strange Superstitions About 8 Everyday Insects From Around the World

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People like to look for signs and symbols in the natural world, and what creature invades our daily lives more often than the humble insect? Much folklore and tradition has grown up around insects, from the wealth-giving properties of spiders to the ability of a snail to cure warts. So the next time you go to squash a bug, perhaps it's worth pausing to consider if its very presence is trying to tell you something.

1. BEES // PART OF THE FAMILY

Due to their attractive appearance and helpful role in nature, bees are associated with productivity, industriousness, and creativity. Many superstitions have sprung up around the bee, including a Central European tradition instructing a bride to walk her future husband past a beehive to test his fidelity; if a bee stings her intended, it indicates that he will not be a faithful husband. In Greek folklore, if a bee lands on your head, it is said to mean that you will be very successful in life, and if a bee touches the lips of a child, the child will grow up to be a wonderful poet.

In Britain and Ireland there is a strong tradition of bee folklore—one superstition tells that if a bee flies around your house or buzzes at your window it means a visitor will soon arrive, but if anyone kills the bee the visitor will bring nothing but bad news. Bees are also believed to be very sensitive creatures and in Britain they must be spoken to politely and informed of all the family news (indeed, if you wish to rid yourself of bees the quickest way is to swear at them, as they despise bad language). The tradition of “telling the bees” varies from region to region, but the most important information to impart to your bees is when their owner dies—the bees must be sensitively told of the death or they will desert the hive, cease making honey, or die. In some cases in Britain and America, treating the bees as part of the family became so well-integrated that bees would be invited to family weddings or funerals and given a piece of the wedding cake.

2. SPIDERS // LUCK WITH MONEY

Despite the fact that many people are terrified of spiders, they are often associated with good luck. Indeed the Linyphiidae family of tiny spiders are popularly known as money spiders and some believe that seeing one signals luck with money; in English tradition, if one crawls across your palm you will soon come into money.

Spiders are perhaps thought to be associated with wealth because they work hard building their webs, which then bring them rewards—this industrious imagery has meant that spider symbolism is traditionally used on jewelry and good luck charms across the world. It is considered very bad luck to kill a spider because their presence in your home symbolizes good health, wealth, and cleanliness. Some cultures have a tradition that if you absolutely must kill a spider then you can negate the bad luck by apologizing profusely to the creature first.

In Vietnam, it is believed that when you are asleep your soul leaves your body and becomes a spider, therefore to kill one is taboo and regarded as a tragedy.

3. BUTTERFLIES // TINY MESSENGERS

Butterflies symbolize renewal and metamorphosis because of their journey from humble caterpillar to beautiful butterfly. In Japanese folklore, butterflies represent the souls of people and so are treated with great reverence. If a butterfly flies into your home it is said to predict that the person you love most will soon visit. In other traditions butterflies may portend good luck, especially if the first butterfly you see in a year is a white butterfly; however, if the first butterfly you see is black, it's not such good news.

In some traditions it is believed that butterflies can predict the weather. The Zuni tribe of Native Americans believed that the color of the first butterfly you see in a season will indicate the weather to come: a white butterfly signifying the start of summer, a yellow butterfly predicting plenty of sunshine, and a black butterfly indicating stormy weather.

4. LADYBUGS // OUR LADY’S BEETLES

These very cute bright red beetles with black spots are generally associated with good luck. Many folkloric traditions relate to counting the number of spots on a ladybug’s back—some say the number of spots will reveal how many children you will have, others that it indicates how many months of good luck you will have, or how much money you are about to receive.

In the Middle Ages ladybugs were seen as a sign of protection. If a farmer’s crops were being devastated by aphids, they would pray for ladybugs, who would come and eat the aphids—thus saving the crops. Ladybugs have long been associated with the Virgin Mary—she is the “lady” of their name—and the spots on their backs have been variously described as representing Mary’s seven sorrows or Mary’s seven joys. In English folklore it is said that if a ladybug lands on your hand you will be married within the year.

Ladybugs are also associated with renewal. It has been thought that a ladybug landing on some old clothes might be indicating that the clothes will soon be replaced, and that a sick person might find a ladybug flying away with their illness—gifting them with a renewal of health.

5. SNAILS // WARD OFF ILLNESS

Snails were sometimes used as amulets to ward off illness. In Brittany, France if a villager was sick they would go to their local chapel in the month of May and harvest some snails from the chapel walls. These snails would then be placed into little linen bags and worn around the neck until the fever lifted. Once cured, the patient would return to the chapel to bury the body of the snail in thanks.

Snails were also believed to cure warts. One classic old wives' tale comes from Wales, where black snails were rubbed onto warts alongside a certain rhyme before being placed on a thorn bush and fastened there with as many thorns as there were warts. It was believed that once the snail had rotted away, the warts would disappear.

6. MOSQUITOES // BUZZING FOR LOVE

Mosquitoes do not have the quaint associations of some of our cuter insects, but are almost universally perceived as a menace due to their nasty bite. It’s therefore no surprise to learn that most superstitions around mosquitoes relate to ways of preventing them from biting. One such superstition is that if you eat green vegetables on Maundy Thursday (which is also known as Green Thursday), then mosquitoes will not bite you for an entire year. An old wives’ tale also states that if you make your bed on new hay during the harvest time then the mosquitoes will not bite.

A West African folktale explains why the mosquito buzzes in your ear: A long time ago, Ear was a beautiful woman and was courted by all the animals. Mosquito also wanted to marry Ear and asked for her hand. Ear refused, telling mosquito that she could not marry someone who only lived for a week. Heartbroken, every time Mosquito saw Ear he would buzz at her saying “Here I am, I’m not dead!”

Not all superstitions are based on fantasy, however: When the British arrived in Somalia in the 1850s they dismissed the local belief that mosquitoes spread malaria as a superstition—much to their cost.

7. DRAGONFLIES AND DAMSELFLIES // TOOLS OF THE DEVIL

Damselflies and dragonflies belong to the same insect family (Odonata) but the damselfly is distinguished from the dragonfly because they have four wings of roughly the same size whereas the dragonfly has large wings at the front and smaller wings at the back. In English folklore damselflies were known as “The devil’s knitting (or darning) needle,” because it was believed that if you went to sleep next to a stream the damselflies would use their long bodies to sew your eyelids shut.

The idea of dragonflies and damselflies as the devil’s tool pervades European folklore and the many names colloquially given to the creatures reflect this. In German, they’ve been given a number of folkloric names including Teufelspferd (“Devil's horse”) and Wasserhexe (“Water witch”), whereas in Danish they were known as Fandens ridehest (“Devil's riding horse”). In Sweden it was believed a dragonfly would pick out your eyes, and in Old Swedish the insects are called Blindsticka (“Blind stinger”).

In Norse mythology dragonflies and damselflies are associated with the Freya, the goddess of fertility and love, perhaps because when two dragonflies mate their wings appear together in the shape of a heart. In American folklore, dragonflies were thought to be “snake doctors,” since the two creatures are often seen together. It was believed that if a snake was cut in two, the dragonfly would use its long, thin body to sew the reptile back together.

8. CATERPILLAR // WEATHER PREDICTORS

American Woolly Bear caterpillars, with their brown and black stripes, are traditionally said to be reliable predictors of winter weather—the thicker the black stripes, the worse the weather is going to be. In European folklore, it is said to be bad luck to handle a hairy caterpillar, which may have something to do with the fact that touching one can leave nasty spines in your hand. However, it is said that the bad luck can be negated by tossing the poor creature over your left shoulder.

All images via iStock.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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