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How 15 Tech Companies, Sites and Gadgets Got Their Names

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1. Skype

The idea of a video phone has been around for decades. While there have been a handful of real video phones, they were never widely available for the average Joe. Then, a company with a strange name harnessed the power of the internet and the ever-growing ubiquity of webcams to bring that dream to the masses. But what does the name Skype have to do with talking to other people online?

Skype is a peer-to-peer communication technology, meaning one person connects to another person, via the Skype service. Of course to the average person, the connection is happening in a mysterious, ethereal realm. So when they were developing the name, they hit upon the rather descriptive “Sky peer-to-peer,” which was shortened to “Skyper.” However, when they went to register the web address for their new product, skyper.com and the other .something variations were already taken. So, they decided to try dropping the “r” and, sure enough, skype.com was available. In hindsight, it worked out for the best – saying you're “Skypering” with your friend sounds a bit clumsy.

2. BlackBerry

Would President Obama have fought so hard to keep his "LeapFrog" phone? Because the phone was leaps and bounds over everything else on the market, this was one of the names considered for the BlackBerry. Another possibility was "Strawberry," because the tiny keys resembled seeds. But when someone felt the word "straw" sounded too slow, another berry was suggested. For anyone addicted to their BlackBerry, the origins of the nickname "CrackBerry" should need no explanation. More possible names were mentioned in a 2011 article in The New Yorker: EasyMail, MegaMail and ProMail.

3. Reddit

One of the fastest-growing websites around, Reddit was started in 2004 by then-college students Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian. The site allows community members to submit links to online content, which is then voted up or down to decide which submissions are most worthy of being read by everyone else.


The name Reddit is little more than a play on the phrase “read it,” as in, “I read it online.” But, as one member of the site (also known as a “redditor”) pointed out, there is a Latin parallel to the site's name that turned out to be a pretty cool coincidence. One loose translation of “reddit” is “render,” which can mean “to submit for consideration or approval,” which is exactly what people do on the site. [See Also: Our 2008 interview with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian]

4. eBay

Whether you're cleaning out the attic or looking for a deal on your next must-have gadget, there's a good chance you're going to wander over to eBay. But where did this powerhouse of e-commerce come from? And what the heck does that name mean, anyway?

Oddly enough, there's actually a legend surrounding the founding of eBay. For a while, it was widely believed that, in 1995, then-28-year old software developer Pierre Omidyar created a website called AuctionWeb just so that his fiancee could buy and sell collectible PEZ dispensers. While the PEZ part isn't true - Omidyar was simply looking for a way to make something cool online - it does make for a good story. What's not legend, though, is that the first item sold on eBay was anything but glamorous - a broken laser pointer. Omidyar only intended the laser pointer listing to be a test, but was surprised to find that someone actually bought it — according to legend, someone who collected broken laser pointers.

Thinking he might be on to something, Omidyar started working in earnest on the program. While contemplating names for the site, he initially planned to use the name of his computer consulting company, Echo Bay. However, echobay.com was already taken (and still is). So Omidyar shortened the name to “ebay” and bought the web address we all know and love.

5. Kindle

E-readers have really hit the mainstream in the last couple of years, with the strangely named Kindle from Amazon leading the charge. The name is not meant to be a dig at paper books (as in "kindling" for a fire, now that e-books are so common). The company says the name refers to an intellectual fire of new ideas that could spread to readers all over the world who now have quick and easy access to the vast digital library at Amazon.

6. Woot

Since 2004, Woot has offered a new item every night at midnight to devoted fans, known as Wooters, who obsessively check Woot's sites to buy everything from computers to flashlights to a “Bag of Crap” (BOC)—a coveted, mystery grab bag that is often sold out within minutes of its unveiling.


If you're at all familiar with internet culture, you'll know that “woot” is also an expression of excitement, sometimes spelled “w00t.” According to Matt Rutledge, Founder/CEO of Woot.com, that is where the company got its name, but it goes a bit deeper than that.

"The company Woot was designed from the ground up to fit that name and adapt itself as a public 'employee store' type of liquidation retailer," Rutledge said. "What type of store would you load up and say “w00t!” to? Answer...that would be what we built and strive every day to reach.”

So Woot is named after “w00t,” but where does “w00t” come from? That's actually a bit of a mystery. Some believe it first appeared in the mid-90s, adopted from the songs “Whoomp! (There It Is!)” and “Whoot! There It Is!” Others define it as the acronym, “We Owned the Other Team,” originating as a victory cry for online gamers. Still others say it comes from an old hacker term used whenever someone has gained full, or “root,” access to a server, exclaiming “w00t! I have root!”

Whatever the origin, there are a few important distinctions between “w00t!” and “Woot.” The company name does not have the zeros replacing the Os, and the exclamation point is only used in the logo or when there is genuine cause for excitement.

7. Etsy

Founded in 2005, the online marketplace Etsy has amassed over seven million registered users and saw revenues of just over $300 million in 2010. And while the name is catchy, many have often asked what it means.


For a while, the company was pretty tight-lipped about the origin, leaving users to come up with their own acronyms or explanations. However, in a January 2010 interview for Reader's Digest, founder Rob Kalin finally revealed the secret:

“I wanted a nonsense word because I wanted to build the brand from scratch. I was watching Fellini's 8 ½ and writing down what I was hearing. In Italian, you say 'etsi' a lot. It means 'oh, yes.' And in Latin, it means 'and if.'"

8. Bing

When Microsoft was developing the name for their new search engine, they wanted something that was a single syllable, memorable, and easy to spell. Of course once they got into the naming process, there were other things to consider as well. For example, one idea—“Bang”—was rejected because you couldn't make a verb out of it without sounding, well, inappropriate. (“What other movies has Kathy Bates been in?” “I don't know. Bang her and find out!”)

So the marketers decided to put their money on “Bing.” Not only was it a single syllable, easy to spell, and easy to remember, it also sounded like “Bingo,” which is usually said when you've found what you're looking for. The name also reminded people of the moment an idea is hatched, sort of like when that little light bulb goes off over a cartoon character's head. You hear a “Bing,” which is what Microsoft hopes will happen when you use their website. Even better, in China, the website is called bì yìng, which translated means, “very certain to answer.” But Bing's detractors are quick to suggest that the name is really an acronym: Bing Is Not Google.

9. TiVo

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Can you imagine if, instead of "TiVo-ing" the latest episode of Lost, you were "Bongo-ing" it? "Bongo" and "Lasso" are just two of the 800 possible names the marketing folks kicked around before settling on TiVo. The final name was cobbled together from "TV" and the engineering acronym "I/O," which stands for "input/output." Little did they know their noun would become a verb and their oddly-named invention would forever change the way people watch television.

10. Bluetooth

Despite the lack of dignity displayed by people who shout into their Bluetooth headsets wherever they go, the name of the device actually has a rather regal origin. In the 10th Century, Danish King Harald Blatand was able to unite warring factions in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark under one banner. Similarly, the developers of the Bluetooth signal wanted to unite many different forms of technology — cars, computers, and mobile phones — under one communications network. So when they were coming up with a name, they went with the English translation of the Danish king's last name, "Bluetooth."

11. Hulu

Hulu means many things to many people. To some, it's a great online resource for watching their favorite TV shows and movies. But to a native Hawaiian, it means "hair." To someone who speaks Swahili, it means "cease." To an Indonesian, it means "butt." While these translations are accurate, the folks behind naming hulu.com were inspired by a couple of Mandarin Chinese definitions instead "“ "interactive recording" and "a hollowed-out gourd used to hold precious things." Despite this often misunderstood word, the website is rapidly becoming one of the biggest names in streaming video. Well, except in Indonesia...

12. Nintendo Wii

Although the off-color jokes almost write themselves, Nintendo had other ideas when they named their latest video game system. First of all, the word is pronounced "we," which emphasizes the social concept that Nintendo envisioned for the console. The name is also universal, without any direct translation into any particular language, reinforcing that all-inclusive idea and avoiding any Hulu-like situations. They even liked the double-i spelling because it looks like two people standing side-by-side. The name was not popular at first, but the concept obviously caught on, because Americans have purchased over 20 million Wiis since its debut in 2006, making it one of the most successful video game systems ever.

13. Wikipedia

wikipedia-logo.jpgWhile the origin of the second half of the name might seem rather obvious, the first half is still a mystery to many. "Wiki" is used to describe any website content that is specifically designed to be edited by its users. The name was first coined by Ward Cunningham to describe software he wrote back in 1994 that was meant to speed up the communication process between computer programmers. He borrowed the word from the Hawaiian language, where it means "fast", after hearing it in the Honolulu airport when an employee told him to take the "Wiki Wiki Shuttle" between terminals. Many people mistakenly believe Wiki is an acronym for "What I Know Is." However, that definition was actually applied to the word after the fact, making it instead a backronym (which is now my new favorite word).

14. Asus Computers

Netbook computers are the hottest gadget out there, with around 14 million of the cheap little laptops sold in 2008. One of the big names in netbook production is the Taiwanese computer company, Asus, which gets its name from the winged horse of Greek mythology, Pegasus. But if you took a quick glance at the phone book, "Pegasus" wouldn't have been too high in the directory of computer companies. So, to increase their visibility in alphabetical lists, they dropped the first three letters of their name. It was an unusual strategy, but apparently it worked.

15. Prius

prius.jpgWhile developing the world's first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, Toyota believed the Prius was going to be the predecessor of the cars of the future. So to name their groundbreaking car, they turned to the Latin word, "prius," meaning "[to go] before," the root of our modern word "prior." And with the growing popularity of hybrid vehicles, it appears they were right about the Prius' legacy. What they couldn't have predicted, though, was the controversy the name would create when people want to refer to more than one of the cars. Many think the plural is "Prii"; others believe it should be "Priuses." The official word from Toyota used to be that there is no plural form, it's just "Prius" (sort of like "moose"). That was until 2011, when an online poll crowned "Prii" the official plural. But really, I'm sure they really don't care what you call them if you're buying two or more.

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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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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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