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15 Perfect Metaphors Hidden in Word Etymologies

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It's human nature to conceive of abstract ideas through more immediate, concrete experiences—which is to say, through metaphors. Most of the words we have for abstract concepts began this way. We can still find evidence of these originating metaphors in the etymological history of our words. Here are 15 of them hidden in words where we may not see them anymore.

1. COMPANION

The central root of companion is pan- from the Latin for bread. Com is from the word for "with." A companion is a “with bread person,” a person you break bread with.

2. EXPLAIN

Explain comes from ex planare, or “out flatten.” When you explain something you flatten it out for inspection, so the meaning is laid out clearly for viewing.

3. REMORSE

The morse in remorse is from mordere, "to bite" (also found in the word morsel). When you have remorse over something, it is returning to bite at you.

4. NORMAL

In classical Latin, a norma was a carpenter’s square, used for confirming straight, right angles. To be normal is to be in accordance with the norma, to fit into the standard measurement.

5. EXPIRE

In Latin, spirare is "to breathe." To ex spirare is to breathe out. When something expires, it has breathed out its last breath.

6. DEPEND

Pendere is to hang. It is also the root of pendulum. De- is "from," so to depend is to hang from. When something depends on something else, it hangs from it, at its mercy if it should let go.

7. DISCORD

The cord in discord is from the Latin word for heart. When there is discord, hearts are divided or separated from each other.

8. IMPEDE

The –pede, also found in centipede and millipede, comes from the Latin for foot. Something that is impeded cannot go; its feet are entangled or otherwise obstructed.

9. INFANT

Fant is the past participle of fari, to speak. To be infant is to be non-speaking or unable to speak. The word captures a salient characteristic of babies and very young children.

10. HUMILITY

In Latin, humus is the earth, the soil, the ground (also seen in exhume, to bring something out of the ground). Humility is the characteristic of being low to the ground, and to humiliate is to bring someone to that low level.

11. OBVIOUS

Obvious comes from a joining of ob- (toward, against, in front of) and via (way, road). When something is obvious it is right there, in the way of you, in front of you in the road. You can’t miss it.

12. VERDICT

Dict is the past participle of the Latin dire, to speak or say. And ver- is the root for truth. A verdict is proclamation of a decision reached after judging the evidence, a saying of the truth.

13. IMMINENT

The Latin verb minere is to hang over or jut out. Something that is in minere, or imminent, is hanging over or jutting out so much that it is about to fall.

14. EDUCATE

The heart of this word is the root ducere, to lead. Appended to the front is e-, a shortened version of ex-, meaning "out." To educate is to lead out. Two metaphorical views are possible, one where the student is being led out of ignorance, and another where the potential of the student is being led out by the process of education.

15. PREPOSTEROUS

Preposterous combines pre-, meaning "before" and post-, meaning "after." To be preposterous is to be before the after, or all out of order, which is a preposterous state to be in.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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