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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: How Did an Ancient King Inspire Our Word for “Wireless”?

January 3, 2018

Today, Bluetooth® means instant connectivity, like playing tunes from your phone to your speaker, or syncing a photo slideshow to your TV. But back in 940 A.D., Bluetooth was a great Danish king credited with uniting all of Scandinavia. See the connection? In 1996 the inventors of our single wireless standard (aka a cohort of totally techie geniuses) were puzzled with how to name such a brilliant, futuristic technology that would ultimately change the way we use our devices. So, instead of thinking forward, the group went back—way back—to the middle ages.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Are the Precedents for Presents?

December 1, 2017

 

Long before the customary exchange of gift cards and fruitcakes (giving real meaning to the phrase “you shouldn’t  have”), giving gifts around December 25th was an important and varied tradition. In the Christian tradition, the custom of Christmas gift-giving is based on the gifts of the three Magi, but there are other precedents for presents. In Sicily, an old woman named Strina brings gifts on Christmas, and her name may stem from the Roman goddess Strenia, whose feast day was marked by the exchange of green boughs (sound familiar?). In a related French tradition, gifts called entrennes are given on New Year’s Day. In Germany and Scandinavia, a gifting tradition called Julklapp involves knocking on doors, flinging wrapped packages into houses, and running away. Sometimes, these gift bombs incorporate marriage proposals (take that, fiancé!). And of course, there’s a certain bearded man in a red suit…

Discover more holiday lore in our Twelve Uncommon Facts About the Holidays post.

24 Days of Tea Advent Calendar | $25

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s So Sweet About New York?

November 6, 2017

When you think maple, you probably think of Vermont and those little leaf-shaped candies. But at the end of the Eighteenth century, one man was on a mission to make the Empire State the maple state. Gerrit Boon, who had been a sugar refiner in Holland, came to upstate—way upstate—New York with dreams of turning its abundant maple forests into a vast plantation for making maple sugar. Continue Reading…

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s Another Word for Piles of Printed Procrastination?

October 2, 2017

 

 

Whether it’s just a few volumes that you couldn’t resist or a formidable tower threatening to topple over and crush you with its wordy weight, there’s actually a name for your pile of unread books: tsundoku. This Japanese neologism describes the habit—some would say admirable, others would say pathological—of accumulating books that may never actually be read. The term is a playful mash-up of words that wonderfully describe the habit: tsunde (to stack things), oku (to leave for a while), and doku (to read). Roughly translated, the combination denotes a pile of printed procrastination. Some would argue that, read or unread, tsundoku. is a noble pursuit because well-designed books are objects of beauty in and of themselves. But if you do get around to reading that deluxe edition of Moby Dick that’s been adrift in the tsundoku doldrums for 12 years, just be careful if it’s at the bottom of the stack.

Prologue Epilogue Bookends | $40

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: How Do Fruit Flies Get the Party Started?

September 6, 2017

As you choose the guest list for your last summer shebang, you might consider rethinking those pesky party crashers—no, not your cousins from Jersey. Fruit flies. Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco conducted a study where they got the little winged insects two steps past tipsy. Their goal was to analyze gene mutations and how flies with DNA variations react to alcohol. It may sound like a perfectly clinical experiment, but what they found might make you put away your swatter. Fruit flies are party animals, or in this case, party bugs. In fact, they aren’t so different from a group of bar-crawlers on a Friday night. “They go through a phase of hyperactivity and they gradually become uncoordinated—they stop moving and they fall over—and eventually they are unable to right themselves,” says molecular biologist Ulrike Heberlein, who led the study.

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Uncommon Knowledge: What Singer Blocked His Own Stairway?

August 30, 2017

If the Buggles are to be believed, the radio star is dead as a doornail. But in the golden age of FM, you could count on a couple of things: DJs who all sounded a bit like Wolfman Jack, and hearing Stairway to Heaven every five minutes (which is incredible given that the song is over eight minutes long). But KBOO, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon decided to do something about this overexposure. As part of a pledge drive, KBOO promised that if they met their goal, they’d never spin Stairway again. Continue Reading…

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: How was the Airstream an In-Tents Solution to a Problem?

August 7, 2017

Tucked in the scenery of a 1950s film or seen rolling down the highway in all its vintage glory, the Airstream Trailer has been a staple of American road trips for almost ninety years. But what do you know about these silver campers besides their sausage shape and aluminum siding? Just in time for your summer vacation, we’re unpacking the unique history of this shiny set of wheels.
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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Planet Is Too Hot to Handle?

July 10, 2017

Just in time for summer, the search for exoplanets—worlds beyond our solar system—is heating up. Literally. Astronomers have discovered a planet that’s beyond blistering. It’s almost as hot as the surface of our sun and even hotter than many other stars. More than twice the size of Jupiter, gas giant KELT-9b boasts a daytime temperature of 4,300 °C. For comparison’s sake, the hottest planet in our solar system—Venus—averages only 460 °C and the hottest spot on earth is Death Valley at a pitiful 58 °C. “You call that hot?” say imagined retirees living on KELT-9b.

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