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40 Words Turning 40 in 2017

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If you're turning 40 this year, you have something in common with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Saturday Night Fever, and the Chia Pet. You also got to grow up with these words, dated by first citation to 1977 in the Oxford English Dictionary.

1. SHAPEWEAR

By 1977, girdles were on the way out—but we got shapewear to take their place.

2. NIP AND TUCK

There was an older, 19th century sense of nip and tuck that referred to a close “neck and neck” competition, but by 1977, the phrase was claimed for minor cosmetic surgery.

3. PARTY ANIMAL

The first citation for party animal is from Bill Murray in an episode of Saturday Night Live.

4. BREWSKI

Another Saturday Night Live contribution. Also from Bill Murray, this time complaining to the coneheads that they put brewskis in the kids' trick-or-treat bags.

5. YOOPER

In 1977, the Escanaba Daily Press had a contest to come up with a name for residents of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, also know as the U.P. The finalists included U.P.ite, which didn’t stick, and Yooper, which did.

6. MICROWAVEABLE

Once we had microwaves, we needed a term to describe the type of packaging that was suitable to put into the microwave. At the same time we got microwaveable, we also got ovenable, for packaging that could, by contrast, go into a more traditional oven—but that word didn’t last as long.

7. WORK-LIFE

“Work-life balance” became an ideal to shoot for in the '70s, and as a result we got this adjective.

8. NO-NAME

There was a heyday 40 years ago for generics, or non-branded products, at the supermarket. As Time pointed out at the time, “No name groceries have become hot items.”

9. NANOCOMPUTER

We had microcomputer in the '50s. In the '70s, we started looking toward the even smaller nanocomputer.

10. MURDOCHIAN

We did see the word Murdochian as early as 1963, but then it referred to the philosophy of the writer Iris Murdoch. In 1977, it was first applied to the sensationalist tabloid style of publisher Rupert Murdoch.

11. PHALLOCRACY

Since 1965, the French had the word phallocratie for a male-dominated society (etymologically, “government run by penises”). In 1977, we made an English version.

12. MOORE’S LAW

In 1965, microchip manufacturer Gordon Earle Moore expressed the idea that the number of components that could fit on a chip would double every year. In 1977, the idea was called Moore’s Law and eventually came to stand for the idea that computers will keep getting better and faster while they also get smaller.

13. A-LISTER

We’ve been talking about the A-list, the most popular, exclusive, and sought-after folks, since the 1930s, but 40 years ago, an article about the band Kiss first applied the term A-listers to the members of this list: “it is snubbed by A-listers, since it panders to 14-year-olds.”

14. AT SIGN

The @ symbol itself has been around for hundreds of years, but we only have evidence for it being called the at sign since 1977. Before that, it was sometimes called the commercial at.

15. BIBIMBAP

In Korean, this dish of mixed rice and vegetables is pronounced more like pibimbap, but 40 years ago, when American culture started getting to know it, it came into English as bibimbap.

16. BRITPOP

The first citation for Britpop, in a 1977 issue of New Musical Express, refers to a band you might not expect: “At home The Sex Pistols are public enemies. In Sweden, they're an important visiting Britpop group.”

17. POST-PUNK

Punk had barely gotten started in 1977, but already there was a cited mention of a “post-punk disco” where a "new wave" band was to play.

18. STREET CREDIBILITY

A couple of years later, this term for "acceptability among, or popularity with, ordinary people, especially fashionable young urban people" was shortened to street cred. Which definitely has more street cred.

19. ‘BURB

Suburb is a very old word, going all the way back to the Middle Ages. Even suburbia goes back to the 19th century. But the 'burbs is now a young 40 years old.

20. CATFIGHT (VERB)

Cats have been fighting for a long time, but the verb to catfight or “fight in a vicious, cat-like manner, esp. by scratching, pulling hair and biting” dates to 1977.

21. CRINGEWORTHY

If what is praiseworthy is worthy of praise, then it makes sense that what is worthy of cringing at should be cringeworthy.

22. NEKKID

The pronunciation nekkid had long been a regional variant of naked, but 40 years ago it became its own word with a slightly different meaning: a purposely humorous, eyebrow wagging, sexually suggestive idea of nakedness.

23. FAST-TRACK

The term fast track originally comes from horse racing. By 1977, it had become a verb for doing things on an accelerated schedule.

24. FRO-YO

Calling frozen yogurt fro-yo made it sound a little more fun, but still didn’t make it ice cream.

25. GUILT-TRIP (VERB)

The noun guilt trip goes back to 1972, but by 1977 we had cut back the lengthy “lay a guilt trip on” to the simple verb, to guilt-trip.

26. INCENTIVIZATION

In the 1940s and '50s, people started talking about the concept of "incentive pay" or bonuses to encourage workers to be more productive. By 1968, we had the verb incentivize, and 1977 brought us incentivization.

27. KARAOKE

Karaoke (from a Japanese compound meaning “empty orchestra”) started in Japan in the 1970s. Though it didn’t really hit big in the English-speaking world until the '90s, we had already borrowed the word for it by 1977.

28. PLUS-ONE

Plus-one, for a guest brought to a party by someone else who was invited, got its start with the backstage music scene.

29. LOOSE CANNON

If a cannon is not tied down on a storm-tossed ship, it’s liable to do a lot of damage. People had long used this image as a metaphor for dangerously unpredictable behavior, but loose cannon became a set phrase for that metaphor 40 years ago.

30. SHOPAHOLIC

We got this word just in time for the dawn of mall culture.

31. UPSELLING

The idea of getting customers to buy something more expensive than they intended was already old 40 years ago, but this abstract noun for the idea was new.

32. SICKO

Pinkos, weirdos, and winos had already been around for a while by the time we came up with sicko.

33. STEADICAM

The patent for the Steadicam, an actively stabilized video camera, was granted to filmmaker Garrett W. Brown in 1977.

34. STEP-PARENTING

A 1977 article in the Washington Post referred to “step-parenting” problems.

35. STRAPPY

Strappy is 40 in the sartorial sense of strappy sandals and strappy sundresses.

36. SUPERSIZE (VERB)

Supersize as an adjective goes back to 1876, but the verb, to supersize something, shows up in 1977. It was popularized in the fast food sense after 1994.

37. TEXT MESSAGE

This phrase was introduced with the publication of “Standard for Format of ARPA Network Text Messages” from the Internet Engineering Task Force.

38. THINSULATE

This proprietary name for an insulating synthetic fabric has been with us for 40 years.

39. TRANSCRIPTIONIST

In the '70s audio recording had become easy and portable enough to be relied upon in many fields. This created the requirement for a new type of job: transcribing from audio. The first citation for transcriptionist is from a job ad for a medical transcriptionist.

40. WEDGIE

The OED dictionary definition for this word is delightfully thorough: “An act of pulling the cloth of a person's underwear, trousers, etc., tightly between the buttocks, esp. as a practical joke; any positioning of a person's underwear, pants, etc., resembling the result of such a pulling.”

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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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