From Rainmakers To Flavor Tasters: This Week’s Curios

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Every day of the year, Curious.com CEO Justin Kitch writes a quirky fact, known as the Daily Curio, intended to tickle the brains of lifelong learners everywhere. This is a weekly digest.

Last week’s Curios covered the rise and fall of cursive, Thoreau’s unlikely invention, and that time pinball was illegal. PLUS: a new Mindset Curio from Dr. Carol Dweck. AND Thai’s Teaser, a weekly puzzle to bust your brain, returns.

Curio No. 1193 | R.I.P. cursive
When the US Department of Education announced the new Common Core Standards for English, one age-old subject was completely absent: cursive handwriting. To be fair, teaching cursive has been on a steady decline for many years. The Common Core Standards Board was simply agreeing with most teachers: time would be better spent on other subjects. Since kids learn to print letters by the first grade, isn’t cursive redundant? Not so fast, say cursive advocates. Cursive isn’t only faster, and useful for reading letters from old people. Many developmental experts believe it is easier for children to write cursive letters first. They don’t require as much fine-motor control, the pencil can stay on the page the whole time, and all the letters start at the same spot–whereas printed letters start in 12 different positions… keep reading.

Curio No. 1192 | Making it rain
Here in California–despite some recent much-needed rain–we are still in the midst of a terrible drought. If only we could call Charles Hatfield! Hatfield, a.k.a. “the Moisture Accelerator,” claimed 500 successes in “making” rain for drought-stricken areas in the early 1900’s. His biggest success came in 1915, when the city of San Diego contracted Hatfield to break an especially bad drought. Hatfield would receive $10,000 (over $200,000 today), if he succeeded in filling the nearby Morena Reservoir. First, Hatfield installed a 20-foot tower at the reservoir. Then he released into the air a 23-chemical concoction, designed to “attract clouds.” Legend has it that, almost immediately, a light rain started falling. Soon, it became a series of torrential downpours. In the subsequent month, the city of San Diego received over two feet of rain, overflowing the reservoir. But when Hatfield requested his payment, the city refused. Instead they blamed him for causing over a dozen deaths because of the flooding… keep reading.

Curio No. 1191 | Don’t believe everything you learn in school
Back in Curio #730, we debunked the myth that our tongue has different zones for each of the five basic tastes. Scientists have actually known for a long time that all of our taste buds are capable of perceiving all five essential tastes. This falsehood was spread accidentally in the 1940s by a Harvard psychology professor named, um, Edwin Boring. He was trying to make a visual representation of findings from a German paper written in 1901. Unfortunately, Boring’s German was not very good. He dramatically overstated the paper’s subtle main thesis: that taste buds vary subtly in their responses to different tastes. But the graphic Boring produced was so un-boring it made its way into textbooks and the public consciousness. As the public’s belief in the segmented functions of the tongue cemented, scientists became more and more confident in the opposite conclusion… keep reading.

Curio No. 1190 | Thoreau, torture device inventor?
Henry David Thoreau is best known for living simply in nature while writing transcendentalist essays contemplating life and civil disobedience. But like most writers, his writing didn’t pay the bills. Well, not exactly. For most of Thoreau’s adult life, he ran the Thoreau Pencil Company–founded by his father–turning it into the preeminent pencil manufacturer in pre-Civil War America. Henry David even invented several crucial optimizations to the pencil-making process, including the modern American pencil numbering system. To this day, American school children are required to use a “Number 2” pencil on all standardized tests like the SAT. Thoreau created a one through four numbering system to categorize the softness of his family’s graphite, which had unique properties compared to traditional English graphite… keep reading.

Curio No. 1189 | Tommy gets locked up
Pinball seems pretty harmless. But from the ’40s to ’70s, pinball was outlawed in several major US cities because it was “a game of chance.” When pinball was invented in the late 19th century, it did have a small element of gambling. Early machines were so primitive, they were difficult for even skilled players to control. There were no flippers, just a ball launcher and random holes. Adding to the perception of gambling, store and restaurant owners would allow winners to cash out their “free plays” for store credit. The cost to play was so small–typically 5 cents–it hurt the game’s credibility further by appealing to minors. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared pinball “penny thievery.” In 1942, La Guardia wrangled a group of policemen, coined the pinball squad, to confiscate thousands of machines. Most of the public was on his side, partly because World War II was in full swing and the machines were made of critical raw materials including wood, wire, steel and glass. The ban on pinball lasted all the way until 1976 when it was ended by one fortunate shot… keep reading.

Curio No. 1188 | Meet Madame Perfect
Our fixed mindsets are not our enemies. They mean well, but they can still ruin our lives! They are trying to keep us safe and within social norms. The problem is they inhibit our growth, and prevent us from reaching our potential. Not to mention happiness. So we need to recognize what “triggers” that naysaying voice in our head. Common triggers include: big decisions, stretching to learn new things, meeting new people, taking a new job, building intimate relationships, or messing up at anything. Anything that creates anxiety or potential shame… keep reading.

Curio No. 1187 | Wheel of Teasers
Here in Menlo Park, California, despite it nearing Halloween, the weather is still beautiful. This past Thursday morning, we did what we do every Thursday morning when it’s not raining (i.e., every Thursday): we played ultimate frisbee at the park. We play with a fairly standard disc that weighs 175 grams and is 27.3 cm across. Now super-stud-player Alonzo has a wicked forehand that sends the disc spinning at 3.2 rotations per second with sniper-worthy accuracy. On this day, a poor ant hitched a ride on the disc just as Alonzo sent it flying. It was on the very edge of the disc and cruising along at 4cm/sec. How long does it take for the ant to crawl all the way around if the disc is spinning counter-clockwise and the ant is walking clockwise? … keep reading.

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