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4 Medical & Emotional Conditions Named for Mythological Characters

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The English language is rich with words and phrases derived from other languages, such as Anglo-Saxon and Latin.  Many terms also come from Greek and Roman mythology. Here are a handful of words that describe physical and emotional states we're all familiar with, and the mythological figures who inspired them.

1. Priapism

Few had ever heard of this condition before reading the small print in the Cialis commercial, but priapism is an extremely long-lasting (over four hours), and sometimes very painful erection.  The condition is named after the Greek god, Priapus.  His mother was Aphrodite (the goddess of love and beauty), but the identity of his father was a bit sketchy.  Different versions of the myth claimed different fathers, but he was probably one of the more influential deities "“ Hermes (god of commerce, boundaries and athletics), Dionysus (god of wine and ecstatic celebration) or Zeus (ruler of the gods and god of thunder). 

Despite this godly pedigree, Priapus' ugliness relegated him to the more marginal parts of the Olympian world.  Even his own mother was appalled by his repulsive appearance when he was born, and abandoned him in the mountains.  In art, he was depicted as a lusty fiend with a small, misshapen body, and an enormous, protruding phallus.  One tradition explained that Priapus' ugliness was the result of a jealous Hera (Zeus' wife) touching Aphrodite's pregnant belly and causing the child to be deformed in utero. 


Although he was cast off as an infant, Priapus did not perish.  Shepherds found and took pity on him and raised him.  When he grew up, Priapus became a member of Dionysus' entourage and his huge phallus earned him the status of a fertility god.  

One of Priapus' claims to mythological fame was that he upset the nymph, Lotis, so much with his molestations that the gods took pity on her and turned her into a lotus.  According to the story, Priapus crept up on a sleeping Lotis, intent on having his way with her.  Priapus was unsuccessful, however, because a donkey brayed and woke up the nymph.  The frightened Lotis fled from Priapus, but didn't have to run too far as she was mercifully turned into a lotus tree before he could catch up with her.
 
It is not surprising that donkeys often featured in the artistic renderings of Priapus.  With his plan to ravish Lotis foiled, Priapus came to despise the animal, and encouraged people to sacrifice donkeys in his honor.  Another version, however, recounted Priapus' hatred of the beast stemming from a heated debate he had with one particular donkey (to whom Dionysius had given the power of speech) about the comparative size of his manhood with his rival's donkeyhood.  When a comparison was made, the donkey won.  Angered at being second best, Priapus beat the animal to death (with his phallus, according to some versions). 

Both Greeks and Romans put statues of Priapus around their homes and gardens.  The Greeks often placed him before doorways as a good luck charm, but also as a guardian against thieves.  In these instances, Hermes and Priapus became almost interchangeable, as Hermes was the god of boundaries and as such could often be found placed in front of people's homes with his phallus exposed.  The Romans placed statues of Priapus in their vineyards where he served double duty as both fertility charm and scarecrow. 

2. Hermaphrodite

According to the Intersex Society of North America, true hermaphrodites are nonexistent because it is impossible for any human being to be completely male and female.  Therefore, the word "hermaphrodite," which traditionally referred to people who have both male and female physical characteristics, is a misnomer, and the word "intersex" is the preferred term for many who have this condition.

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The word "hermaphrodite" comes from a Greek mythological figure, Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite.  He was raised by the nymphs of Mount Ida, and not surprisingly given his parentage, was very good looking.  When Hermaphroditus was a teenager, he came upon a lake in Caria, located in modern southwestern Turkey.  The guardian of the lake, a water nymph named Salmacis, took a liking to him instantly.  She tried to seduce him, but Hermaphroditus wasn't interested.  Instead, the cool, clear water of the lake attracted him, and he jumped in for a swim. 

Once in the water, however, Hermaphroditus was on the nymph's turf, and Salmacis grabbed him and held him as tightly as she could.  She then begged the gods that she and Hermaphroditus might stay together forever, and so their bodies were fused.  Hermaphroditus thus became both man and woman.  In art he was portrayed as having female breasts and male genitals.  The only consolation for Hermaphroditus was that any man who also bathed in this lake would suffer the same fate. 
  

3. Fury

furies.jpgThe word that describes that uncontrollable anger we all sometimes feel comes from three female creatures "“ the Furies, or furiae as they were called by the Romans.  The Greeks knew them as Erinyes or "the angry ones" and sometimes as Eumenidies or "kindly ones" "“ in the hopes that flattery might keep them away. 


As they were the personification of rage, it's not surprising that their origins were violent "“ when the Titan, Cronus, had castrated his father Uranus, the Furies were born out of his blood.  Other versions of the myth explained the origins of the Furies as the daughters of Nyx (night) or the daughters of Hades. 
 
The Furies were frightful in appearance.  They were winged, had snakes in their hair, carried torches and whips, and had blood pouring from their eyes.  Originally their number was uncertain, but over time a consensus emerged that there was a total of three "“ Alecto meaning "endless," Megaera meaning "grudging" and Tisiphone meaning "avenging murder."
 
Their domain was Hades, but they would often make appearances in the world of the living in order to pursue transgressors.  They punished those who broke the taboo of killing one's parent or other family member, and their chosen form of retribution involved driving the guilty party insane.  The most famous episode illustrating the role of the Furies comes from the Greek playwright Aeschylus and his play Oresteia.  The Furies pursued Orestes to the ends of the earth because he had killed his mother Clytemnestra in vengeance for her killing his father, Agamemnon.  (The Furies finally left Orestes in peace when an Athenian court acquitted him of the charges).
 

4. Narcissist

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Everyone knows at least one.  They're arrogant, selfish, and usually utter bores.  Sigmund Freud identified narcissism as an actual personality trait.  Narcissus was the son of the nymph Liriope and the river god Cephissus.  When Narcissus was a child, the soothsayer, Tiresias, forewarned his parents that their son would live a long life only if he didn't see his own image.  Narcissus was very good-looking and it seems that everyone desired him, both human and supernatural.

In the best known version of the Narsissus myth, Ovid's Metamorphoses, the nymph Echo fell madly in love with Narcissus.  She followed him around everywhere trying to get his attention, but Narcissus simply found her irritating.  Part of Echo's problem was that she could only repeat the last word that anyone said.  Echo had been a chatterbox in the past, but had got on Hera's bad side by distracting her with gossip while Zeus was out playing the field with nymphs.  Having discovered this treachery, Hera altered Echo's speech so that the formerly garrulous Echo could only repeat helplessly.

narcissus-flower.jpgNarcissus finally told Echo to go away.  She was devastated, and spent the rest of her life wandering around lonely in the woods and caves until she faded away and only her voice remained, repeating the words of the occasional passerby.  Seeing that Narcissus had hurt Echo as well as others, the goddess Nemesis cast a spell on Narcissus to avenge those whose hearts had been broken.  One day Narcissus came across a pool and as he started to drink from it, he fell in love with his own image. At first, he didn't realize he was seeing his reflection.  Each time he reached to hold his beloved, the image disappeared.  After a while, Narcissus became aware that he had fallen in love with his own reflection and died of despair.  In his place, a flower grew—the narcissus.  Narcissus did not find peace even in his death.  Once in Hades, Narcissus continued to be taunted by his image in the River Styx.


In another rendering of the story, Narcissus came from the city of Thespiae.  Again, Narcissus was a handsome man with many admirers he ignored.  However, the youth Ameinias  became very distraught at being rejected. After Narcissus sent him a sword as a gift, Ameinias used it to commit suicide in front of Narcissus' house.  Just as in Ovid's version, Narcissus came upon a pool of water, saw his reflection in it, and fell in love.  In this rendering, however, Narcissus killed himself out of frustration when he learned he was in love with an image. (In yet another variation, Narcissus drowned after trying to kiss his image in the water).  Just as in Ovid's version, in the place of Narcissus' demise grew a narcissus flower. 

(An alternative theory claims, however, that the name of the flower has nothing to do with the god, but actually comes from the Greek work narko meaning numbness, which is what happens if one ingests the flower).

In a later version recounted by the Greek geographer Pausanias, who was writing in the second century CE, Narcissus had a twin sister who died.  Heartbroken, Narcissus took comfort gazing at his own reflection in the water, thinking that he was looking at his beloved sister. 

Martha A. Brożyna earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California where she specialized in the very popular and cutting edge field of medieval Polish history. She has published two books: Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Contrarian Ripple Trading: A Low-Risk Strategy to Profiting from Short-Term Trades, which she co-authored with her husband. She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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