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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Is Your Dad a Monkey’s Uncle?

May 30, 2017

Your dad may have given you a lot of things: a love of Bond movies, his old jazz LPs, male pattern baldness. But whatever your inheritance, all dads pass one thing along to their sons—their Y chromosomes. Smaller and stumpier than the X chromosomes shared by men and women, the Y has been passed along through generations of male mammals for millions of years. But because it has only a few hundred genes versus the X’s thousands, geneticists long thought that the Y was wasting away, becoming the wisdom teeth of the genome. More recent research suggests that the Y chromosome is actually a hotbed of evolution. We know that we share 98% of our DNA with our closest primate cousins, chimpanzees, but researchers have found a 30% difference in Y chromosome genetic material between chimp and human dudes. This surprising finding suggests that Y chromosomes hold more mysteries for geneticists. Who knows—they might even hold the key to dads’ groan-worthy sense of humor.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Why Do We Drink “On the Rocks”?

May 17, 2017

Despite the recent rise of the American craft cocktail movement, with its splashes, twists, and many muddled herbs, deep-cut bartending jargon still gives even the most dedicated drinkers pause. Did you know, for instance, that you can sip on a shrub or request a topless margarita? And what of the highly complex difference between the words “straight,” “straight up,” and “neat”? It can be enough to make your head spin, drink or no drink.

“On the rocks,” meanwhile, rings a crystal-clear bell for most of us—ice, please, and usually scotch—but where on earth did it come from? Legend has it that the phrase derives from a Scottish tradition of cooling one’s whiskey with rocks retrieved from a riverbed, though the truth is likely a bit more boring. With the first use of the phrase dated to the mid-1940s, when the ice cube tray as we know it was still a relatively new invention, the “rocks” in “on the rocks” most likely refer to ice cubes chipped from a larger block, which would appear jagged, like little stones. Need a visual? Think of that itty-bitty gravel you put in a fishbowl—and no, for once, we don’t mean the drink.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: When Did the TV Mom Go from Pie Baker to Moneymaker?

May 3, 2017

Up until the late 1980s, TV moms were apron-wearing, laundry-folding ladies who never raised their voice too high (think: June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver). But eventually screenwriters, perhaps by taking note of their own multi-faceted mothers, changed the game with high-powered working moms like Claire Huxtable (The Cosby Show) and Angela Bower (Who’s the Boss). One mom who really challenged the 1950s archetype was Roseanne Conner (Roseanne), the pull-no-punches leader who placed no worth in likability.

So why did it take until 1988 for primetime to depict women with more complexity than a pie baker? Television is about ten years behind on trends, kind of like your mom. In the 1960s and ’70s, women joined the labor force in swarms. Jobs were readily available, and women were given the opportunity to prove they could do it all. TV was late to the game and has continued to improve with characters like Selina Meyer (VEEP) and Cookie Lyon (Empire), but there’s still a long way to go. If we’re going to solve gender inequality for moms and daughters (looking at you, pay gap and paid family leave) let’s take advantage of where we have people’s attention: the small screen.

 

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s the Top Trend?

April 17, 2017

From powdered wigs to Beanie Babies, trends come and go. And when they go, they tend to go in one of two directions. Trends that stick (e.g. blue denim pants) become classics, while trends that don’t (e.g. hunkerin’) are relegated to the quirky realm of fads. Either way, who can keep up? It’s almost like the cycle of trends is constantly spinning. At this point, an etymologist might exclaim, “exactly!”

Since the late 18th century, trend has described popular but fleeting phenomena and, apropos to it’s cyclical nature, the word hails from the Old English trendan—to rotate or spin. Trendan, in turn, is a cognate with the Middle High German word trendel, which came to mean a spinning disk or top. If trendel sounds vaguely familiar, that may be thanks to a classic Hannukah toy: the dreidel, possibly related to trendel through the linguistic mash-up of Yiddish. Both trendels and dreidels may trace their ancestry to the teetotum, a top-like gambling toy introduced to Europe through the Roman Empire. So the term trend itself might be based on a popular diversion that was once all the rage.

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Uncommon Knowledge: How Does Cupid Get the Lead Out?

February 6, 2017

Christmas has its jolly old elf, Easter has its hopping bunny, and Valentine’s Day has Cupid—a chubby, winged toddler wielding a bow and arrow. When you stop to think, this mischievous child taking aim at one of our major organs (sometimes blindfolded) is a formidable, even frightening ambassador for an otherwise lovely holiday. Nonetheless, a heart pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows has become shorthand for being in love, gracing many a middle school desk and lovers’ favorite tree. But is that arrow always friendly fire? Turns out that love’s archer has two types of ammunition: the familiar gold arrows that make people fall head over heels, and lesser-known lead arrows that put people permanently in the “friend zone.” In the story of Apollo and Daphne, Cupid used one of each, making Apollo forever hot for Daphne, and the nymph forever giving him the cold shoulder. Hit by Cupid’s lead arrow, Daphne even had her father (Peneus, the river god) turn her into a tree to make herself permanently unavailable. Talk about barking up the wrong tree.

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Uncommon Knowledge: Why Aren’t There More Mid-November Babies?

January 30, 2017

First comes love…then comes marriage…then comes a below-average birth rate. With all the candlelight dinners, slow jams, and suggestive gifts, you’d reasonably assume that Valentine’s Days might lead to Valentine’s nights full of procreation, resulting in a surge of births nine months later (mid-November). Turns out that that time of year is a low point in birthday popularity. Several factors may counter Cupid’s arrows on February 14th, including the fertility-reducing factor of romantic holiday anxiety and natural cycles that discourage births right before the coldest months of the year. But of course, highly effective modern birth control methods also mean that celebrations of love don’t necessarily bring baby showers. So what’s the month that welcomes the most babies into the world? September, with the majority of statistical top-ten birthdays. Nine months before that? Mid to late December, meaning that mistletoe might be a more effective aphrodisiac than chocolate roses.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Why Do We Pelt Newlyweds with Rice?

January 11, 2017

Down the Aisle Personalized Art - UncommonGoods

Ah, the wedding celebration, full of cake, kisses, and…chucking Uncle Ben’s? Wedding guests participate in dozens of well-wishing traditions, from toasts to the bouquet toss, and then there’s rice throwing. This peculiar—and some might say cruel—tradition, began with the ancient Romans, who thought it would bring newlyweds an abundance of fertility and a large family. In other words, bring on the babies! But with a lot of slipping spouses and a shifting cultural tide (not everyone wants or can have kids), couples are coming up with new celebratory send-offs—sparklers, fireworks, confetti—and saving their rice for a home-cooked meal for two. Did someone say curry?

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s the Biggest Animal in the Big Apple?

December 27, 2016

 

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A supersized pigeon in Bryant Park? Nope. A giant rat terrorizing Hell’s Kitchen? Not even close. New York’s biggest resident by far is a humpback whale seen recently roaming the Hudson River and New York harbor. Nicknamed “Gotham” by whale watchers, the solitary cetacean has been spotted north of the George Washington Bridge down to the waters around Liberty Island. His friends have been spotted in increasing numbers south of the Verrazano Bridge, but Gotham seems to be the only adventurous visitor to the Upper New York Bay and the Hudson.

Gotham’s New York residency seems to be thanks to thriving populations of one of his favorite foods: menhaden (“bunker” to fishermen), a small foraging fish that humpbacks down in gulps of hundreds of pounds. Cleanup and conservation efforts in the Hudson have helped menhaden populations thrive, making New York waters an all-you-can-eat humpback buffet once again. And the good news for these majestic ocean mammals goes well beyond the Big Apple: long endangered, humpbacks in nine of fourteen population segments have recovered to the point that they can be removed from the U.S. endangered species list.

No word on how long Gotham will continue to enjoy New York’s seafood, but one thing is for sure—if he can make it there, he can make it anywhere.

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