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25 Dramatic Dragonfly Nicknames From Around the U.S.

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We have many reasons to love dragonflies. They look cool, eat mosquitoes—and have some nifty nicknames across the U.S. In our continued partnership with the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), we bring you 25 dramatic dragonfly designations from around the country.

1., 2., AND 3. DEVIL’S DARNING NEEDLE, DARNING NEEDLE, AND SEWING NEEDLE

Devil’s darning needle, darning needle, and sewing needle are just a few nicknames that come from the way dragonflies “fly back and forth over the same area as a needle travels when darning socks,” according to Hawaiian Nature Notes.

Devil’s darning needle is a chiefly northern term, while darning needle is mostly used in the Northeast, Inland North, and the West. Dining needle, a variant of darning needle, might be heard on Long Island; Spanish needle in Nebraska; stitcher in California and Massachusetts; and sewing needle in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Massachusetts.

Dragonflies are harmless but somehow gained a nasty reputation. A belief was that the “devil’s darning-needle [would] sew together the fingers or toes of a person who goes to sleep within its reach,” according to the 1899 book Animal and Plant Lore. It would also “sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children, and profane men,” “sting you to death,” and “enter the ears and penetrate the brain of a person.” Animal and Plant Lore isn't the only place these ideas pop up: In The Insect Guide (1948), author Ralph B. Swain writes that “it was once popularly believed that [large dragonflies] sewed up the ears of truant schoolboys,” while a 1967 quote in DARE says “it would sew up your mouth if you told a lie.”

4., 5., 6., AND 7. EAR CUTTER, EAR SEWER, EAR NEEDLE, AND EYE STITCHER

Want kids to behave? Make up scary stuff about insects. The term ear cutter comes from the myth that dragonflies “will cut the ears of children who lie,” according to DARE. Synonyms include ear sewer and ear needle, the latter of which is probably a blend of ear sewer and darning needle. Eye stitcher comes from the frightening idea that dragonflies “will sew your eyes shut if you don’t behave.”

8. SCHNEIDER

Pronounced sneeder or snyder, this Wisconsin moniker comes from the German word for tailor and also refers to the daddy longlegs and other insects.

9., 10., AND 11. SNAKE SERVANT, SNAKE GUARDER, AND SNAKE HEEDER

A Pennsylvania term, snake servant apparently comes from the belief that dragonflies warned snakes “of approaching danger, and aided them in the acquisition of food,” according to the Journal of American Folklore.

Also in the Pennsylvania German area were snake heeder and snake guarder, according to A Word Geography of the United States. The latter term is a loan translation of the Pennsylvania German schlangehieter, while the former is a partial translation of the same word, according to DARE.

More snake-related nicknames include snake waiter, especially in Maryland; snake peter in Wisconsin and New Jersey; snake feeder in the Midland and Plains States; and snake charmer in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Montana, and the Northeast.

12. SNAKE DOCTOR

While dragonflies might be the stuff of bratty kids’ nightmares, they were apparently a boon to snakes. Snake doctor, chiefly used in the Midland and South, comes from the idea that dragonflies could “cure snakes” or snakebites. According to the 1893 book Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi, the “two bumps sometimes seen on the [dragonfly], just behind his wings, are called his saddlebags, and in them he is reputed to carry medicine for the snakes.” Meanwhile, an Alabama resident told DARE dragonflies “picked off the gnats that would gather in a small cloud around a sunning snake.”

Other doctor epithets include witch doctor, especially in the South Midland, and mosquito doctor, probably a blend of mosquito hawk, another nickname for the dragonfly, and snake doctor.

13., 14., AND 15. DEVIL’S DRAGON, DEVIL’S RIDING HORSE, AND DICKINSON’S HORSE

Dragonflies were considered devilish in some regions, with devil’s dragon quoted in Tennessee; devil horse and devil's horse in Wisconsin, Alabama, and Mississippi; and devil’s riding horse in North Carolina. In Iowa you might hear Dickinson’s horse or Dickinson’s mare where, we’re speculating, Dickinson might be a variation on Dick, Dickens, and other old-fashioned names for the devil.

16., 17., AND 18. HORSE DOCTOR, MOSQUITO HORSE, AND HORSE STINGER

Horse-related idioms are another variation. You might hear horse doctor in Tennessee, Texas, and Arkansas, where one resident said it might be “bad luck for ‘horse doctors’ to fly around near the fish pole.” Mosquito horse might be heard in Mississippi and Georgia. In Nebraska, horse stinger comes from the old-timey belief that dragonflies stung horses and even sucked their blood, according to the book Hill County Harvest.

19. AND 20. MULE KILLER AND BEE-BUTCHER

Similarly, mule killer comes from the incorrect belief that dragonflies killed mules, and not-so-similarly, bee-butcher from their true habit of eating bees and other small insects.

21. FOUR-EYES

Not just a schoolyard taunt, four-eyes might be a dragonfly designation in Illinois, referring to its compound eye, according to DARE. Sarah Zielinski writes at Smithsonian that “nearly all of the dragonfly’s head is eye, so they have incredible vision that encompasses almost every angle except right behind them.”

22. AND 23. HELICOPTER AND AIRPLANE

Then there are the regionalisms related to how dragonflies move. According to Zielinksi, they’re “expert fliers” and can “fly straight up and down, hover like a helicopter and even mate mid-air.” So it’s no surprise that the dragonfly is known as a helicopter in areas like Indiana, Pennsylvania, and the Upper Midwest. Meanwhile, over in California, Delaware, Washington, and South Dakota, the insect might be called an airplane, airplane bug, and airplane fly.

24. GLOBE-SKIMMER

According to Hawaiian Nature, a particular species of dragonfly known as the globe-skimmer takes “advantage of any little puddle of water in the lowlands to breed,” which is why “this species is so abundant, even in the driest localities.” The species migrates 11,000 miles—the farthest of any insect.

25. LONG-ASS BUTTERFLY

And if you’re ever in the Buckeye State, be like one Ohioan jokester who referred to a dragonfly for what it is: a long-ass butterfly.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
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]

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