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The Origins of 8 High-Tech Names

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You know the names, but do you know where those names came from? Here are the stories behind the naming of TiVo, BlackBerry and more — including what they were almost called.

1. TiVo

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.

2. 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."

3. 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 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...

4. 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. [Update: Other possible names were mentioned in a 2011 article in The New Yorker: EasyMail, MegaMail and ProMail.]

5. 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.

6. 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).

7. 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.

8. 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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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