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Give Me a Sign: The Stories Behind 5 Hand Gestures

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So much can be said with a hand gesture. Here are the stories behind gestures you might use every day, and some you might not.

1. The Vulcan Salute

We all know it, even if we can't all do it. The Vulcan Salute, made famous by Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek, has become a cultural icon recognized even by those who have never been to a sci-fi convention. And while the gesture is meant to be from another planet, its inspiration is anything but alien.

When Nimoy was a child, he witnessed a Jewish ritual called the "kohane blessing," which uses a hand sign meant to resemble the Hebrew letter "shin," which symbolizes the Hebrew word for "Shaddai," meaning "Almighty (God)." (Got that?) It's made by splitting the hand down the middle—holding the index and middle fingers together, the ring and pinky fingers together—and then the thumb pressed firmly against the side of the hand. The Orthodox priest giving the blessing holds both hands out in front of him in these strange configurations, palms down. When Nimoy was developing a greeting to be used between Vulcans, he remembered the sign and adapted it, using only one hand held up, and pulling his thumb away from the rest of the hand.

Nimoy had no problem doing the salute, but not all Trek actors have been so lucky.

William Shatner had to have his fingers tied together with fishing line whenever Captain Kirk needed to use the sign. Even the latest pointy-eared Vulcan, actor Zachary Quinto, who played a younger Mr. Spock in the recent blockbuster film, had to have his fingers stuck together with the skin-safe superglue used by hospitals as a replacement for traditional stitches.

2. The Shaka Sign

Folding your three middle fingers down while holding out your thumb and pinky, then twisting your hand around, is a strange gesture to say the least. But if you visit Hawaii, you're likely to see it a lot. The gesture, called The Shaka Sign, can be interpreted as "Hello," "Goodbye," "Have a nice day," "Take it easy," "Good luck," or, the most popular definition, "Hang loose." Unfortunately, the sign's history is a bit vague.

The oldest origin story goes back to the days when Spanish sailors first landed on the Hawaiian Islands. Unable to speak the native tongue, but trying to be friendly, the Spaniards offered to share a drink by mimicking a bottle with their hand with the gesture and tilting back their head. This became such a common greeting that the natives simply believed that's how the Spanish said hello, so they started using the sign whenever the two groups encountered one another.

Another theory, from the mid-20th Century, claims the sign was inspired by the wave of a beloved local named Hamana Kalili, who'd lost the middle fingers on one hand. There are multiple theories as to how he lost his fingers: there was a shark attack, they were blown off while using dynamite to catch fish, or perhaps the digits were lost in an accident while working on a sugar plantation. But no one knows for sure anymore.

As if the origin of the gesture isn't mysterious enough, the word Shaka isn't even Hawaiian. However, most people agree the name goes back to a local used car salesman, Lippy Espinda, who would throw up the sign at the end of popular TV commercials during the 1960s and 70s, and say, "Shacka, brah!" ("Shocker, bro!")

During his Inauguration Parade, Barack Obama threw the Shaka Sign to greet Honolulu's Punahou School marching band.

3. The Corna

Hand gestures can have multiple meanings. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the "hand horn," also known as the "corna," where only the pinky and the index finger point up while the other fingers are held in the palm under the thumb.

If you're in Italy or Spain and you flash this sign towards a man, you might get beaten up. In this culture, the symbol represents the horns of one of nature's most virile animals, the bull. The bull in this case is usually meant to symbolize the guy sleeping with the man's wife behind his back. The sign can also be interpreted with the cuckold as the bull, who has been symbolically castrated by his wife. Either way it's bound to make him see red.

However, turn your palm down and point the extended fingers at someone who doesn't like you, and you're simply guarding yourself from the Evil Eye. In ancient times, bulls were often seen as protective deities, so turning the bull's horns against an enemy was a way of keeping the curse at bay.

On a similar note, in South America, if you have the horn sign held up and twist it back and forth, it's known as "lagarto" or Lizard Gesture. Similar to the old superstition "Knock on wood," it's thought that by doing this you can protect yourself from any bad mojo that might occur after someone utters the taboo word "culebra," or snake.

Of course the corna is also used by fans of the University of Texas, where they call it the "Hook 'Em Horns." Created in 1955 by student Harley Clark, the sign represents the school's mascot, a Texas longhorn steer named Bevo, and his impressive 72" horns. Being a Texas native former Governor of Texas, though not a UT alumni, President George W. Bush and his family were known for flashing the Hook 'Em Horns during appearances in the Lone Star State.

But there's another group of fans who use the corna, too "“ fans of heavy metal music. The gesture in metal goes back to occultist band Coven, a group heavily inspired by counter culture figures like renowned Satanist Anton LaVey, who used the corna as a sign of the Devil. However, it was Ronnie James Dio, lead singer for Black Sabbath in the late-1970s, that really made the sign take hold in the genre. He borrowed the gesture from his superstitious Italian grandmother who used it to ward off evil. He felt the sign's pagan origins fit perfectly with the subject matter of the band's music.

4. The Pledge of Allegiance

Chances are, when you were saying the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school, you placed your hand over your heart in a sign of adoration for Old Glory. But if you were in school before World War II, you probably used an entirely different gesture to address the flag—the Bellamy Salute.

The editor of a children's publication called The Youth's Companion created the unofficial salute in 1892 shortly after the Pledge was written, and named it after the author, Francis Bellamy. For the first three words of the Pledge ("I pledge allegiance"), the right hand was held at the brow in a military salute. Then, as the reciter got to the phrase, "to my flag" (the original words), the arm was extended up and out, pointing towards the flag, fingers together, with the palm facing up in a gesture of presentation. This pose was held while the rest of the Pledge was recited.

However, as the years went by, parts of the Bellamy Salute fell out of use, while others evolved. First, the military salute was abandoned, leaving only the straight arm presentation of the flag. But then the palm went from facing up, to sideways, and by the 1940s, it faced down. This last version became a problem as America entered World War II, because it so closely resembled the stiff-armed salute of dictators Mussolini and Hitler. The hand over the heart gesture was suggested as a viable alternative and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law in 1942 as part of the Flag Code, making it the official gesture for the Pledge of Allegiance we all know today.

5. The High Five

The roots of the high five go back to the Jazz Era of the early 20th Century. Black musicians of the time created numerous ways to say hello, such as "giving some skin," "giving five," and later a series of complicated, interconnected handshake gestures called a "dap." Then, in the late-1970s, college and professional basketball players began raising their arms above their heads and slapping the palms of their hands together, in what would later be dubbed the "high five."

While no one can say for sure where the high five came from, some believe the first one was exchanged between Glenn Burke and Dusty Baker, baseball players for the L.A. Dodgers, after a home run in 1977. But there is one man who claims he knows the origin of the high five, because he says he's the guy who invented it.

Lamont Sleets, Jr. says he adopted the high five from a salute his father exchanged with old Army buddies from the 5th Infantry regiment, nicknamed "The Five." To say hello, the men would stick their hand straight up in the air, spread their fingers wide, and call out "Five!" Anytime he saw the Five greeting, Sleets Jr. would say "Hi, Five!" to the visiting veteran and slapped the upraised hand with his own. Sleets Jr. went on to become one of the top basketball players at Murray State University in the late-1970s and he brought his odd salutation with him. It became popular with his teammates, and as the team traveled the country to play other schools, Sleets says the gesture caught on.

To celebrate this infamous hand gesture, students at the University of Virginia created "National High Five Day," which takes place on the third Thursday in April (yesterday).
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Have a favorite fun hand gesture we didn't mention? Is there one you've always wondered where it came from? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.