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15 Japanese Food Onomatopoeias

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Comic book interjections like “Bam! Kapow! Thwack!” are classic examples of English onomatopoeia. But if Superman were to come up against a Japanese superhero, he’d probably be KO’d by his rival’s sheer arsenal of sound effects. Japanese is a language extremely rich in onomatopoeia. These giongo and gitaigo, mimetic words which describe not only sounds but also more abstract concepts like blushing (“dere-dere”) or the sensation of a gentle breeze (“soyo-soyo”), are usually made up of two sounds or syllables which are repeated for emphasis. And while an online list of English onomatopoeia has only 757 examples, the Japanese giongo/gitaigo dictionary boasts a whopping 4500 entries. 

One area where the onomatopoeia get strangely specific is when you’re talking about food texture. Take what English speakers would simply call “crunchy”—in Japanese there’s shaki-shaki (crunchy and juicy like a green apple or iceberg lettuce), pori-pori (a quieter munch, like cookies or Pocky), pari-pari (a crackly crunch like nori), saku-saku (a light, crispy crunch like tempura coating), kori-kori (soft and crunchy like broccoli), kari-kari (a dry crunch like toast or biscotti), and gari-gari (hard and crunchy like carrots or ice). If all this is making you feel a little peko-peko (the sound of a rumbling stomach), allow us to serve up 15 more linguistic morsels to sink your teeth into. 

1. puri-puri

Puri-puri describes that feeling of snapping into a fresh shrimp or a plump hot dog. Bursting with juiciness and bounce, puri-puri evokes the springiness and slight resistance of collagen—which is why it’s also sometimes used to describe a young girl’s cheeks. 

2. hoku-hoku

You know when a soft morsel of hot baked potato crumbles on your tongue and your mouth fills with a starchy steaminess? That’s hoku-hoku.

3. fuwa-fuwa

Fuwa-fuwa is one of the cutest of the food onomatopoeia, often squealed by girls to describe delightfully light and fluffy foods like white bread, marshmallows, or pancakes. 

4. shuwa-shuwa

Fizzy and bubbly, shuwa-shuwa refers to the refreshing mouthfeel of a carbonated beverage like sparkling water or champagne.

5. neba-neba

We would probably never want to describe a food as neba-neba (slimy) in English, but it’s high praise in Japan. That’s because the Japanese lap up such gooey, viscous—or more technically, mucilaginous—delicacies as nattou (fermented soybeans), wild yam, and okra.

6. mochi-mochi

Mochi-mochi is the most meta of the onomatopoeia, as it comes from one food in particular: mochi. If you’re not familiar, that’s sticky rice pounded into a stretchy, chewy, glutinous ball. Mochi-mochi isn’t just limited to the ice cream-filled sweet, though—it can also describe a particularly dense, doughy bread.

7. puru-puru

Puru-puru seems like the perfect word to describe a blob of wobbly, wiggly gelatin.

8. tsubu-tsubu

People with trypophobia dare not do a Google image search for tsubu-tsubu—this handy term is used for clusters of tiny balls, seeds, or grains. Food-wise, that means sprinkles, caviar, Dippin’ Dots, or, the staple of Japanese desserts, sweet adzuki beans.

9.  pasa-pasa

Giongo aren’t always appetizing; you can use pasa-pasa to talk about a food that’s lost all its moisture and flavor, like leftover rice that no longer sticks together, a dried up old orange, or stale bread. 

10. toro-toro

Toro-toro describes rich, creamy fare that has melted from a solid to liquid—think grilled cheese, chocolate fondue, or a slow-cooked stew brimming with fat. 

11., 12., 13., 14., and 15. tsuru-tsuru, shiko-shiko, zuru-zuru, churu-churu, and gido-gido

How about some ramen? You’ll want the noodles to be both tsuru-tsuru (slippery) and shiko-shiko (al dente). If they are, you’re sure to gobble them up with a loud zuru-zuru (slurp)—unless you’re a woman, in which case you might go churu-churu (a more feminine slurp). Just be careful not to get broth all over your face or you’ll be gido-gido (oily). 

That’s a mouthful! Surely by now you’re pan-pan (stuffed).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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.