Research Day: Red Lights, Brown Crayons, And The Disputed Heavyweight Champion Of The World

If I’m stuck behind a stale red light, is there anything I can do to change it? I used to live in Seattle’s U-district, and, for a period of about six months, I had to drive downtown at 4:45 in the morning every weekday. My commute was between seven and fifteen minutes long, and the five minute discrepancy was completely dependant on the state of the traffic light at the junction of Montlake and 25th. If it was green when I arrived, I would sail through and arrive at the office in no time; if it was red, I could get stuck sitting there for freakin’ ever, despite the complete lack of competing traffic.

I’ve heard two hypothesis about actions drivers can take to actually force (or at least hasten) a stale red light’s change to green. The first says that you can simulating the strobe effect of ambulance and police car sirens by quickly flash your headlights, and trick traffic light sensors that are programmed to automatically turn green when such a vehicle approaches. The second says that, if you are alone at a light, you can roll your car forwards and backwards, repeatedly triggering a pressure plate in the road and tricking the light into thinking that more and more cars are waiting for it to turn green.

To see if either of these were true, I called up the superintendent at Seattle’s Traffic Maintenance Office. She sounded as if she had never heard the headlight-flashing one (which is odd, because pretty much everyone I know if familiar with the ol’ “flash your lights” trick, and, to the best of my knowledge, nary a one of them works for the Traffic Maintenance Office). “That would never work,” she told me. “They would need the code.” She later clarified that “the code” was a signal sent by transmitters in ambulances, which traffic lights are programmed to recognize and turn green when an emergency vehicle approaches. “They don’t respond to flashing lights at all,” she said.

So is there any way to change a stale red light, I asked. The short answer: no. “If you’re the only one at the light it’s possible that you didn’t trigger the coil in the road, so you can try rolling back and forth,” she said. “But in most cases, you’re just going to have to wait it out.”

The coil, by the way, is part of the inductive loop that traffic lights use to detect when cars are present. The “pressure plates in the road” hypothesis is completely wrong, at least in Seattle.

What is brown? When The Squirrelly is coloring, I take the opportunity to teach him basic color theory. “This is purple,” I’ll tell him. “Purple is red and blue. This is green. Green is blue and yellow. This is brown. Brown is … orange and, uh, black? Except black isn’t a color. What the hell is brown?”

Holy smokes, did this ever turn out to be a not-easy question (see this contentious Google Answers thread, for instance). The first place I looked was in the “Ask a Scientist” archives, where I found this answer: “brown color is a color combination of red, orange and green — those colors are not adjacent in the visible colors of a rainbow so they do not combine to form a visible brown. The colors which normally make up the BROWN color, however, ARE ALL PRESENT in a rainbow, but are not present in the color combination we call brown.” Um, okay: I get the “red, orange and green” part, but the rest doesn’t make a goddamned bit of sense to me, dude.

After further research, I think I figured out what he was trying to say: colors only appear on the rainbow if they are a primary color (red, blue, yellow) or if they are a color made up of two colors that are adjacent (i.e., a secondary color). So orange appears between red and yellow, for instance — though I’m still unclear on how “violet” winds after blue, when its other primary color, red, is all the way on the other end of the spectrum. Brown, however, is made up of colors that are not adjacent, which is why it’s not on the rainbow.

In fact, it appears that brown is the result when you mix a color with its compliment, which is the color found across from it on the color wheel. So you could make brown by mixing purple with yellow, blue with orange, or red with green. This is short of a shorthand way of saying that brown is made up of all three primary colors, but in different proportions. All his I learn from a page on how to mix hair dye.

Are there Disputed Heavyweight Champions Of The World? I know nothing about boxing, except that the best thing to be is the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Of The World. But does the word “undisputed” really mean anything, or is it just a rhetorical flourish on an already overlong title?

According to the Wikipedia entry on boxing, there are no less than three international boxing associations: the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, and the International Boxing Federation. If all three agreed that a certain boxer was the “world champion” then he was “undisputed;” but if any of the organizations object, a boxer “world champion” title is considered disputed.

35 thoughts on “Research Day: Red Lights, Brown Crayons, And The Disputed Heavyweight Champion Of The World

  1. It’s funny how many people think that the lights are controlled by pressure. I seriously doubt that anyone has ever used such a system; induction coils have been used for metal detection for ages, and they have no moving parts to get gummed up. Also, if you look at the section of asphalt right before the intersection, you can see where they cut the loop into the road surface and filled the slit up (usually with tar-based filler).
    On the other hand, pressure-sensitive mats were widely used for opening grocery doors before they switched to microwave sensors. Alright for people-sensing, but not very reliable, and prone to breakage.
    The system used by emergency vehicles is called a MIRT, or Mobile InfraRed Transmitter, and yes, you can buy them or build them, but if you get caught, your ass is grass! Back when I was a kid (well, okay, I was 18 or 19, but that’s still a kid!), my friend built a simple radio-controlled relay that ran for something like 2 months on a 9-volt battery. We lived in a small town with only 3 traffic lights, but I guess boredom takes its toll. At any rate, late one night he took his wireless relay and connected it inside one of the pedestrian control buttons at the busiest intersection – I seem to recal he had to fabricate a special tool to open the button panel. It worked great for about a month – either the battery in the receiver died, or somebody removed it. But we had a lot of fun randomly switching the lights for a bit! Wasn’t much use for when you were driving, though, since its range was only about 100 feet.

  2. BTW, traffic lights that are driven entirely by those induction coils, rather than by a schedule, are extremely frustrating for cyclists.

    We have a few of them around where I live in Orange County, and if you don’t know about it in advance, it’s easy to get stuck at an intersection because the lights don’t think you exist.

    There are 3 options I know of:

    – break the lights. can be scary.

    – pull off the road, so that a car can get into your spot and fire the induction coil.

    – (this is one I’ve heard recently, I don’t know if it works –) get off your bike, lay them down on its side in the middle of the road across the coil, and wait for the light to change. Also a bit scary.

    Ah, I could rant about the poor planning for cyclists, believe me. I should have been born in Holland.

  3. Here in Massachusetts, people just start to go after a certain amount of time has passed at a light. We don’t know from light sensors. That sounds a bit too Big Brother-ish for Massachusetts! So there’s this whole “The light is broken” mentality, whereby cars just do that guilty scurry through, one by one when the light has been red for too long. When I lived in Pennsylvania this broken-light-assumption never happened, nor in Connecticut.

  4. On colors:

    Our division of colors into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ is mostly cultural or relating to painting technology and doesn’t have all that much to do with how the human eye perceives color. The spectrum of visible light is a continuum of wavelengths, varying from red on the one end to indigo at the other end. An emitter of one of these wavelengths, say, an LED emitting photons with a wavelength of 600nm, will produce a color sensation in your eyes, in this case orange. There is no color mixing involved in this sensation. Every color on the visible spectrum should be considered equal (even colors midway between blue and green that we don’t have names for) in the sense that they aren’t the product of any other wavelengths of light.

    Now, let’s get into how the eye can perceive these colors and distinguish them from each other. You have three types of cones in your eye (though some women have four!), each of which is sensitive to a different span of light wavelengths. They have a peak of sensitivity at a particular wavelength, and nearby wavelengths stimulate them to a lesser degree. It might help to look at the diagram here . The three cones peak roughly at blue, yellow, and orange. So when your eye receives single-wavelength red light, pretty much just the orange cones are stimulated. Yellow wavelengths of light stimulate the yellow cones the most, and the orange cones to a lesser degree. So the eye can figure out which wavelength of light it’s looking at by comparing how strongly the three types of cones are being stimulated. Pretty cool, eh? A very efficient system.

    I haven’t even gotten to color mixing yet, so let’s start on that. Let’s start with emissive color mixing, to be specific, also know as additive color mixing. You can stimulate the cones such that they seem to be perceiving a single wavelength of light by simultaneously striking them with two different colors of light at the proper intensities. Like, you can simulate pure green light by sending some blue and yellow wavelengths to the cones. They would equally stimulate the yellow and blue cones, which is your eye’s cue for ‘green’. This is how monitors work — they have red, green, and blue emitters, and they modulate their intensity to stimulate your cones in a convincing simulacrum of the visual spectrum.

    This mixing means that you can perceive colors that aren’t on the spectrum, such as the combination of red and blue light: purple. White light is the equal stimulation of all three cones. I don’t really know how violet (which seems to me to be a particular shade of purple) can actually be created by light of wavelength 440nm, but let’s pretend that it actually makes sense. Only weenies use violet anyway.

    In the real world, of course, we never really see single wavelengths of light — every color we see is a mass of varying wavelengths. Brown represents a variety of mashups, which, judging from my experiments making brown in various paint programs, consist mostly of red, with green being the second-strongest, and a little bit of blue. I guess these are the colors most prevalent in the natural world, so we have evolved keen abilities to distinguish among their combinations.

    Running out of time here, so let me gloss over subtractive color mixing. Basically the principle here is that you take white light and subtract from it the wavelengths that you don’t want in order to produce a combination of wavelengths that looks like the desired color. So you’d use a magenta filter which only lets through blue and red light, in combination with a cyan filter which only lets through green and blue light, to produce a blue light. See here for more:

    Hell, everything I just wrote is here:

    The most difficult and complicated thing is the thing in which you’re interested in — combinations of pigments to produce a certain color. Pigments are difficult to make ‘pure’, so each pigment will have its own spectrum, which may or may not interact well with the spectrums of other pigments. Pigments all operate in the subtractive model. You put a pigment on a white paper, and white light will be filtered by the pigment on its way to the paper and back. When you combine two pigments, the result will be darker, because each pigment will block some wavelengths that the other doesn’t. For example, if you have a blue pigment that only lets through blue wavelengths of light, and you combine it with a yellow pigment that only lets through yellow wavelengths of light, the result will be black! The light that would pass through the yellow pigment gets blocked by the blue pigment, and vice versa. Fortunately, most pigments aren’t this pure; they let through a pretty broad spectrum of colors. So you can combine a blue pigment that also lets through some green light with a yellow pigment that also lets through some green light, and get a dim green. This is partly why painting is so frustrating; you can’t really predict the results of mixing two pigments without knowing something about their spectrums — knowledge that you cannot directly perceive! It’s very trial-and-error, until someone gets paint companies to include spectrographs on each of their pigments.

    So I guess this doesn’t really help you produce brown with crayons or whatever, but it may give a sense of why it’s so tricky, and how someone can have a full-time job just investigating color.

  5. Did some more research, and … hmmmm: “a low-intensity orange-yellow is brown”

    “Brown (assuming red is involved) is sometimes defined as an orange with low brightness”

    Very interesting.

  6. Brown pigments fall into two basic categories: dark yellow and dark orange. Brown is somewhat unsaturated (meaning that the orange or yellow is darkened not by black but by some combination of red and/or blue). So brown is basically dark, greyed-out yellow or orange.

    When you mix perfectly complementary colors you don’t get brown, you get grey.

  7. Re: traffic lights, if the intersection you’re stopped at has crossing signals, try pushing the button to stimulate “walk.” If the system thinks there are pedestrians waiting, the red light will be shorter (although not much, but it helps) so that they can cross. At an intersection near my house we have a long red light, and even the transit bus drivers will get out and press the buttons to speed up the process.

  8. First, bikes and induction coils in the road. What I’ve been told, and what seems to work as well as anything, is to line you bottom bracket up with the line cut in the pavement for the induction coil and follow it from one end to the other. If you’re watching for the coil, you can usually do this without dismounting. Does it work? Sometimes. Oh well. Roads tend to be designed by people with cars, for people with cars, and the rest of us suffer.

    Now, for color in your post you seemed to jump back and forth between pigment color mixing, and light color mixing. Red Yellow and Blue as primaries are what most people learn in grade school, and with those, in theory, you can mix any other color. Add white and black to the mix, for shades and tints, and you’ve pretty much got your spectrum.
    Light on the other hand has primary colors of Red, Green and Blue, You can mix those to get any other color. Varying the intensity gives you shades in light. And yes, you can get brown… but it’s a large pain in the butt to get right, and who really wants brown light? If you really want to do some research on this, that’s also fun and ridiculously entertaining for a science book, I strongly reccomend finding The Story of Light by Ben Bova. Oh, and the color between Green and Blue is called cyan.

  9. Pressure sensors: Yes, there used to be pressure sensors. They are no longer used that I am aware of, but they can still be spotted in some roads that haven’t been repaved in a long time.

    Coil sensors: Lining your bike up parallel to the coil will sometimes work depending on the sensitivity of the coil and the type of bike. For practice, go to a parking garage/lot with an automatic exit gate. If you get the gate to raise, don’t try to go through. I can tell you from personal experience it will hit you.

  10. When I’m biking and come to a sensor light (identifiable by the coil mark in the road) which is red, I usually pull over to the right and become a pedestrian pushing a bike until I get through the intersection. It’s annoying, but everything else just feels too scary.

    What I find really interesting about color is that not all cultures recognize the same number of colors. Here in the U.S., and presumably in western Europe (maybe Eastern Europe too), we get told there are 6 colors, three primary, three secondary, and sometimes someone mentions “indigo” in passing. But in the Japanese language, the word “aoi” can mean either green or blue, and many African languages don’t distinguish between orange, yellow, and brown (which makes translating chemistry and geology textbooks interesting). There are words that mean one or the other specifically, but those, I gather, are more like our use of “lime” as a shade of green. Unsurprisingly, all this is covered, if somewhat briefly, in the Wikipedia article. :)

    I once had a co-worker whose short-wave cones were apparently odd in a way that allowed him to perceive UV directly as a visible color. He had to change majors rather rapidly after his EE class took a trip to a chip fab and he discovered the photo-etching process caused him painful glare (which no one else in the class could see, of course). He said reading color descriptions was always a challenge. Colors didn’t mix the same way for him as they did for most people, and he couldn’t distinguish several colors in the middle of the spectrum. I wonder how many men with genetic color “blindness” might really have this adaptation without knowing it?

  11. Up here in Canada, we know that you can get a red light to change to green if you squeeze your butt cheeks together hard enough. What do they teach you in driving school down there?

  12. Three world bodies for boxing? Well, three major ones (though I think one of them is slightly lightly regarded in Asia – either the WBA or the IBF, but I can’t remember which) plus lots of minor ones so that everyone can have a world title fight and sell far more tickets to make far more money. The World Boxing Organisation is regarded as pretty major in the UK (and, I think, the world at large outside the US) though possibly because some of our most famous boxers of the last ten years or so were WBO champs (Hamed, Eubank and so on). Look at, say, boxing magazine The Ring’s listing of its own champions in each weight division; sometimes they will rate a boxer who does not have a WBC/WBA/IBF title as being the best in the division. (They too have awarded their own championships, partly to try to eliminate some of the title politics, though they have done so by creating their own).

    Other than that you have the WBF, the WBU, the IBO (who may have the best rankings, even if very weak champions) the OMGWTF and so on – it’s pretty close to every permutation of {World|International} Boxing (Association|Council|Federation|Organisation|Union} possible. Happily, Global does not seem to be a frequently-used prefix.


  13. Okay here’s the deal:

    Our assignment of what we call “colors” is an artifact of our biology/evolution. The concept of “primary” colors is arbitrarily based upon the same, human-specific physiology, namely, the design of our visual color receptors. Another species, for example, may have a completely different physiology, and therefore a different color perception system (we’ve all heard of insect

  14. A few years ago a light near my house was reprogrammed, increasing the green arrow for oncoming traffic to an absurdly long time.

    I’ll normally sit and wait these things out but the first time I came through, it was red for so long that I figured something was wrong with it and eventually went ahead on through. The light turned shortly thereafter and I realized my mistake.

    But here’s the thing: I was almost to where I was going. When I got there, I parked my car and went into the store…and the car behind me also pulled in, and someone got out and followed me into the store! Can you picture this? I’m ducking behind aisles of tasteful home furnishings, trying not to run into this little old lady who probably wants to make a citizen’s arrest…definitely one of MY shining moments as an adult. (Finally I just walked out and it turned out the little old lady was in there shopping.)

    As for color theory…until the Squirrely is considerably older you’re probably safe with what you came up with: Brown = A primary and its complement = The combination of all three primaries. The drawing features on my kids’ educational computer games work on that theory – you mix orange & blue, red & green or purple & yellow to get your dirt/sand/sidewalk color.

    Although now that I think of it, one of the games does adhere to the also-popular “Brown = Dark Orange” theory, so you add black to orange.

    Either way, it’s not too hard to understand and the Squirrely will be able to make brown when he needs to.

    Now, teaching HTML to adults is a different kettle of fish. (This was back when plain ol’ HTML was all there was.) Grownups all KNOW that red & yellow make orange (etc.) and not all of them go gentle into that good night where color is defined by its light components (AND expressed as a hexadecimal number).

    Ahh, the good old days. Now? It’s pretty much Elmo, Madeline and Reader Rabbit.

  15. Stop Lights:
    I am surprised you treat stop slights and color theory as if they were both just physics.

    Why don’t you go to a town council meeting or wherever stop lights are planned and complain about it?

  16. “So there’s this whole “The light is broken” mentality, whereby cars just do that guilty scurry through, one by one when the light has been red for too long.”

    I’ve known a few people in different parts of the country who, in the middle of the night, ran a red light after waiting several minutes (with no other traffic around) and got a ticket from a cop who was parked nearby. This is apparently easy money for them. Massachusetts cops must have a different revenue stream.

  17. @Ingrid:

    And here in England, you can make the lights change by getting every one in the car to raise both arms into the air.

    Seriously, Everyone knows, Many hands make light work.


  18. The confusion over where you get violet is a curious historical artifact. Most people don’t really discriminate two colors – indigo and violet – and just see or say “purple.” Isaac Newton made the case for seven colors in his works on optics, but his decision to call it seven colors instead of six reflected a belief in the presence of specific numbers in the ratios of natural phenomena. Seven would make it divine, six would make it messy and arbitrary. So the indigo/violet line is a rather fine distinction in comparison with its fellows.

  19. I always thought “Rods and Cones” would be an excellent name for a nudie magazine for optometrists.

  20. About the color thing: some of your readers have pointed out that there are different primary colors for pigments and for light. Here is a fun experiment you can do with water-soluble magic markers (available in brown!). Take a strip of (white) paper towel and use the marker to make a band about 1 cm wide, about 5 cm from one end. Put a little bit of water in a glass so that you could place the end of the paper towel in the glass and the water would come close to, but not touch the colored band. Let the paper sit there for awhile and observe what happens! It is fun to compare a few different colored markers. Also – check out what colors of ink are used in your color printer – those pigments in combination make an enormous variety of colors on the page!

  21. Re: Traffic lights.

    The other day, I was stopped at a red light for probably at least 7 minutes. Normally, this light is rarely ever red, and when it is, it’s red for probably a minute tops. It was very strange, and both sides of traffic kept building up and building. Coming the other direction from me was a police car; it was about three cars back in line. Finally, the policeman put on his siren and lights and announced through his loudspeaker that everyone needed to go. Almost immediately after he turned his lights on, the red light turned green. I had never heard this thing about flashing lights turning a red light green, but maybe they do work that way in Louisiana.

  22. Ahh, induction coils and bicycles. The theory is that bikes (when perfectly vertical) do not have enough surface area of metal over the coils to trigger them. Thus the idea of leaning the bike over or laying it down on top of the coil. Sometimes that works.

    Other times, I just pull forward in front of the coil and hope a car pulls up behind. That works more often than not.

    However, city planners will usually be able to re-adjust the coils to be sensitive enough to bicycles. If they aren’t, check with your city to see if there’s a bicycle advocate who can intervene. It’s becoming more fashionable for a city to be able to say it’s bicycle friendly, so there’s a good chance there is a city official looking out for bikes.

    oh yeah, @evier, I’d bet the copcar has a MIRT connected to the lights/sirens, and not just lights that triggered the change.

  23. Traffic lights: Rather than running the red light, in certain situations you can simply turn right on red, do a u-turn, and then either go right again or through the still green light. I believe I learned this technique in driver’s ed (in Washington). It doesn’t come into play often – you need to be able to “flip a bitch” legally and there can’t be any crossing traffic. But it works really well if it’s late and you can’t trust that there aren’t cops around.

  24. Perhaps it’s already been said above, but the primary colours of ink are not red, blue and yellow – they are cyan, magenta, yellow and black. They are related to the primary colours of light (red, green, blue) by the process of subtractive reflection. I think that’s right. It’s a good start anyway :)

  25. Ernie: Everything is physics. Sheesh.

    As for coils, I know of at least two lights in Seattle (one just outside the Home Depot on 1st where I find myself far too often) that definitely work if you roll forward, backward, then forward again. Always trips the coil and sends the opposite walk sign into its flashing “count down from 10” to a green light for me. Which I always obsessively count. I think in most cities the flashing “Don’t Walk” sign flashes for 10 plus-or-minus one flashes.

    Matt, care to do another research day on that one?

  26. Some of us motorcyclists have the same problem–not enough ferrous metal to trip the inductive sensor. One solution is to put a decently-sized magnet under your bike. Here’s one:

    This seems like a decent solution for bicyclists. What also sometimes works is to put your sidestand (it’s usually made of steel) down right over the wire. Of course, if the street’s been repaved since they installed the loop, good luck finding that spot.

  27. To blatantly steal a joke from some professional comedian (I think Jerry Seinfeld), “if the championship is undisputed, why are so many people fighting over it?”

  28. Despite all this analysis, there’s still a descrepancy in his story of the long traffic light. The difference between a 7 minute and 15 minute commute is 8 minutes, not five.

  29. I used to be a firefighter (in Eastern Oregon), and we always called the change-the-light-for-me thingie an “Opticon.” It was essentially a forward-facing strobe light mounted on the roof of the cab, right in the middle of the big red lightbar. When the lights were activated, the little light would visibly flash (at a frequency far greater than I could ever manually switch the headlights of a car), so I’d guess that ours wasn’t actually infrared.

    I’m suspicious of the response you got, Matt, from the Traffic Maintenance Office supervisor. Unless I’m much mistaken, a transmitted signal (like a radio or wifi or something) would reach all four signals at a given intersection, thus being pretty useless for determining which direction of traffic gets right-of-way. It’s gotta be line-of-sight (barring unnecessarily complicated – and thus expensive – electronics systems), whether infrared or visible.

    Of course, I only have direct experience with the emergency setup in one town, and I suspect there are probably different manufacturers peddling different technologies to do the same thing, so I won’t claim expert status on Seattle’s setup.

    If I were really curious (and in a hurry much of the time, and not too worried about tickets), though, I’d probably buy an adjustable-speed strobe light and test it out. YMMV.

  30. Re: Traffic lights — try this

    There is a “T” intersection near our house. Making the left is awful as most traffic is going east/west. We use this trick and it has NEVER failed to trigger the light (have no idea why it works.) Right before we come to the light, we swerve over into the other lane and then swing back.. 3…2…1.. light change. Obviously don’t try this in heavy traffic or if there are oncoming cars. We also try not to do it if anyone is around so we don’t look drunk. Hope that helps.

  31. In middle school, my art teacher told our class, “Brown is orange with a dirty face.” She’d wave her hand over her face for effect. It was a simple and inaccurate description, but it kind of makes sense.

  32. I learned about the boxing titles this year when our sweet, sweet hometown boy Jermain “Bad Intentions” Taylor defeated Bernardm”The Executioner” Hopkins to become the Undisputed World Middleweight Champion. Jermain did it in just one fight, because Bernard had held all three titles up to that time. For the last 10 YEARS up to that time.

    So whichever of them wins the rematch in December (Go, J.T.!!!) will still be undisputed champion.

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