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How 10 Colors Got Their Names

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By Onna Nelson, University of California, Santa Barbara

1. English red

The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word for red, reudh, remained largely unchanged for thousands of years, showing up in English red, Spanish rojo, French rouge, German rot, Icelandic rauðr, and Welsh rhudd. Not only did it lead to these words for the color itself, it also led to red-related English words like ruby, rust, and rubeola.

2. English black

The PIE word bhel evolved into many modern words meaning "white," including Spanish blanco, French blanc, Italian bianco, and Portuguese branco, as well as white-related words such as bleach and blank. So why does the English word black look so much like all these other words for white? Well, bhel also referred to anything bright, like fire, and the result of fire is blackened, charred remains. Hence, black.

3. English green

The PIE word ghre-, meaning "to grow," is another root which endured the centuries. What grows? Green stuff! Grhe- gave us many modern words meaning "green," including English green, German grün, and Icelandic grænn, as well as the English words grow, grass, graze and herb.

4. Portuguese red and purple

As languages add color words to their lexicon, the colors a word refers to can get shifted around. Portuguese roxo, related to the same PIE word reudh, used to mean red and red-related colors, including pink, orange, and purple. When the bright red pigment vermilion was imported from China, Portuguese began using vermelho to refer to red, and pushed roxo aside to refer exclusively to purple.

5. English purple

Purpura is the Latin name of a particular kind of shellfish which, when ground up, produces a bright purple dye, which in turn was taken from the Greek word porphura to describe the same sea creature. The word purpura later began to refer to the dye, and eventually the color of this dye. This dye was very expensive, and purple was considered a color of royalty throughout Europe. When this dye was exported to England, the word purple was imported into English as well. Today "purpura" is used by medicos to describe purplish discolorations of the skin.

6. English pink

Lots of fancy color words come from flowers or fruits: violet, periwinkle, lavender, lilac, olive, eggplant, pumpkin, and peach, to name a few. In English, pink used to refer exclusively to a flower called a pink, a dianthus which has pale red petals with fringed edges. "Pink" the verb, meaning to cut or tear jaggedly, has been in use in the English language since the early 14th century. Eventually, English speakers forgot the name of the flower, but preserved the word for the color. 

7. Japanese blue and green

Over two-thirds of the world's languages have a single word for both green and blue, known as grue in English. In Japanese, aoi historically referred to grue. When Crayola crayons were imported, green was labeled midori and blue was labeled aoi. New generations of schoolchildren learned them as different colors. But traces of grue remain: Japanese still refers to “blue” traffic lights and “blue” apples with aoi.

8. Kurdish and Russian blue

In Russian, the word for dark blue is sinii, and in Kurdish the word for blue is šin. In Neo-Aramaic, a central hub of trade, the word for blue is sǐni, and in Kurdish the word for blue is šin. In Arabic, a central hub of trade, the word for 'Chinese' is sini. The words for Chinese and blue became synonymous due to the popular blue and white porcelain china commonly traded in the region.

9. Spanish yellow

Amarillo, or "yellow," is a diminutive form of the Spanish word amargo, which comes from the Latin word amarus, meaning "bitter." So how did “little bitter” come to be synonymous with “yellow”? In the Middle Ages, medical physicians commonly believed that the human body had four humors. The “bitter humor” referred to bile, which is yellow.

10. English orange

When oranges (the fruit) were exported from India, the word for them was exported too. Sanskrit narangah, or "orange tree," was borrowed into Persian as narang, "orange (fruit)," which was borrowed into Arabic as naranj, into Italian as arancia, into French as orange, and eventually into English as orange. The color of the fruit was so striking that after borrowing the word and the crop, English speakers eventually began referring to the color by this word as well. Before oranges were imported in the 1500s, the English word for orange (the color) was geoluhread (literally, "yellow-red").

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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.

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