Diversions Archive

Alphabet blocks were inspired by dice

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 26, 2017

The early inspiration for alphabet blocks was to combine learning with sport so children would be more engaged, writes Ernie Smith.

Flamingos are born to stand on one leg

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 25, 2017

Researchers might have figured out why flamingos balance on one leg so well, as an experiment discovered even a deceased flamingo can support its weight passively on one leg without muscle activity. Standing on two legs, by contrast, requires ongoing muscle activity and risks fatigue.

Crows have funerals for each other

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 24, 2017

Crows have been observed mourning the death of their own by gathering together and cawing, writes James Ross Gardner. Researchers studying this behavior have to obscure their faces because crows can recognize human faces and possibly associate them as the dead crow's killer.

The long decline of the business suit

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 23, 2017

American workers dress more casually and have been for decades now. The reasons include an increase in remote work and a general cultural shift away from formality in fashion, writes Deirdre Clemente.

Card catalogs: Gone but not forgotten

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 22, 2017

Card catalogs stopped being printed in 2015, but Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden says the book system is part of an important history. "It was really the first search engine, so I think for younger generations it is an eye-opener to think about the written catalog and how far we have come in organizing data and making it findable," she says.

Fidget spinners -- therapeutic, annoying or a scam? It depends on whom you ask

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 19, 2017

In the early years of the fidget spinner, the toy was actually used as a therapeutic aid for children with autism, anxiety or stress, writes Alex Williams. Now they have become a social media phenomenon and the whirring, spinning bane of every teacher's existence.

Einstein focused on science, not wordiness

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 18, 2017

Albert Einstein wrote simply even while working out his biggest breakthroughs, such as the theory of relativity. "He liked to think visually, coming up with experiments in his mind's eye and working them around in his head until he could see the ideas and physical principles with crystalline clarity," Mitch Waldrop writes.

The soundtrack of US graduations is about the British Empire

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 17, 2017

The signature graduation song "Pomp & Circumstance" has roots in the British Empire's quest for gold and diamonds, explains Phil Edwards. The song, used at King Edward VII's coronation, spread further after being played at Yale University when its composer, Edward Elgar, received an honorary degree.

The advantages of being born first

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 16, 2017

Researchers keep finding that first-born children do better in school and work than younger siblings, but it's not because they're inherently better, writes Derek Thompson. "[F]irst-borns are doubly blessed -- lavished with their parents' attention, and then entrusted to act as the rules enforcer of the family, which builds intelligence, discipline, and leadership qualities," he writes.

$100 survived 34 transactions in a currency-exchange experiment

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 15, 2017

Carl Bialik took $100 to a currency exchange to see how many transactions he could make between different currencies before running out of money. Most exchanges require you to convert back to US dollars before going into another foreign currency, which led to significant fees when buying dollars with less popular currencies.

The long-ago legal battles over Mother's Day

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 12, 2017

Mother's Day is a holiday that immediately led to fights in and out of courtrooms over its origin and purpose, writes Brian Handwerk. The day's origins were as a 19th-century anti-war movement, and when the holiday went national in the early 1900s, Anna Jarvis battled to claim ownership of the idea and to fight efforts to commercialize the day.

Historians seek the stories of WWI's animals

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 11, 2017

Animals played roles in World War I that went beyond just being mascots, writes Jennifer Nalewicki. Newly digitized photos show that raccoons, alligators and dogs were sometimes used for transporting munitions, looking for mines and carrying important messages.

The Easy-Bake Oven was almost the Safety-Bake Oven

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 10, 2017

Phillip Tracy gives a history of the Easy-Bake Oven, including that creator Kenner Products was blocked from naming the product the Safety-Bake Oven. Adjusting for inflation, the first Easy-Bake Oven in 1963 cost $127 in today's money, or nearly three times today's retail price.

Enjoy oysters in months without an "r"

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 09, 2017

Despite popular belief, oysters are never not in season, as long as they're raised in healthy water at the right temperatures, writes Joanna Klein.

Do you return shopping carts?

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 08, 2017

People who use shopping carts generally fall into one of five categories, with some people never bothering to return the carts to the store from the parking lot. Many people, however, will behave according to social norms and ease of use, making the context and environment of a supermarket parking lot critical to how people behave, writes Krystal D'Costa.

Glow-in-the-dark mushrooms light up to promote themselves

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 05, 2017

Bioluminescent mushrooms emanate light through something called oxyluciferins, the end product of a certain set of molecules that interact with oxygen. Scientists recently viewed the phenomenon in action, saying that the illumination is meant to attract insects and get them to spread the mushroom's spores.

Times Square's bright lights made history

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 04, 2017

The predecessor to today's modern electronic billboards was an animated electric sign with 2,000 bulbs that debuted in New York City's Times Square just over 80 years ago. The project was the brainchild of advertising legend Douglas Leigh, though the actual sign was designed by a woman named Dorothy Shepard.

Squirrels were once beloved pets

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 03, 2017

Colonial Americans kept squirrels as pets, but eventually it became clear that they are wild animals and that it's tough to train them, writes Natalie Zarrelli.

Archiving movies is becoming unsustainable

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 02, 2017

Hollywood's shift from film to digital is all but complete, and now the problem is how to affordably archive film history, writes Marty Perlmutter. "The head of digital archiving at one major studio, who asked not to be identified, told me that it costs about $20,000 a year to digitally store one feature film and related assets such as deleted scenes and trailers," Perlmutter writes.

Artists may have been key players in developing mathematics

SmartBrief on Leadership | May 01, 2017

Artists may have been key players in establishing modern mathematics, writes Henry Adams. Geometric perspective in paintings from the Italian Renaissance challenged Euclidian mathematics in that parallel lines in Renaissance paintings eventually converge at a vanishing point.

Massive impacts about 400 million years apart on Mars

SmartBrief on Leadership | Apr 28, 2017

There was a span of about 400 million years between giant impact epochs on Mars, according to a new study. "The new results reveal that Mars' impact history closely parallels the bombardment histories we've inferred for the moon, the asteroid belt, and the planet Mercury," said Bill Bottke, lead author of the study published in Nature Geoscience.

Global tourism has roots in an anti-alcohol preacher

SmartBrief on Leadership | Apr 27, 2017

Thomas Cook went from religious and temperance messaging to being an early version of a global travel agency, leading tours from Europe to the US, the Suez Canal and other areas starting in the 1850s. He leveraged technological and transportation advancements, as well as a growing middle class with disposable income, to build a business that was iconic for decades.

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