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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Where Was Hollywood Before Hollywood?

April 11, 2016

41266_4.4.16Although the movie industry has gone global in the 21st century, Hollywood remains synonymous with movie making. But that wasn’t always the case. For almost a decade between 1912 and 1920, idyllic Ithaca, NY was the cinematic capital of the US. Movie moguls of the silent era Theodore and Leopold Wharton came to the Finger Lakes community (initially to shoot scenes for a Western), fell in love with the area’s many charms, and set up a studio near the Cayuga Lake shore. This brought superstars of the day like Oliver Hardy, Lionel Barrymore (great uncle of Drew), and Harry Houdini to town, and also attracted other filmmakers to Tompkins County. With the advent of “talkies,” the industry soon shifted to the West Coast, and Ithaca today is known for the intellectual enclave of Cornell University and for its bounty of farm-to-table culture. But for a few years around the First World War, the town hosted the early heyday of movie magic.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s the Origin of “Off the Cuff?”

April 6, 2016


You’ve probably heard the phrase “off the cuff” as shorthand for something spontaneous and unrehearsed. And you might also know that it stems from the pre-twentieth-century practice of performers jotting lines on their shirt cuffs that provided discreet white spaces for perfunctory notes. Curiously, the handy phrase may have been in colloquial use for decades before it appeared in print in 1936. That same year, Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times (1936) featured a scene where Chaplin’s Tramp writes lyrics on his shirt cuffs, only to have them go flying off once he hits the stage, leaving him to improvise to hilarious effect. The earliest known appearance of “off the cuff” in ink was in a Los Angeles Times article bearing the headline “Directors Turn Back Time, Again ‘Shoot Off the Cuff’” which includes the observation that “Chaplin starts a story with an idea, works out each scene as it comes along.” This nod to Chaplin’s famously improvisational style can hardly be a coincidence in light of his popular film performance of the same year, marking the popular adoption of a phrase that was once, well, off the cuff.

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Uncommon Knowledge: What’s the Matter With Glass?

April 4, 2016


If you got just one thing from your elementary school science class, it’s the fact that matter comes in three states—solid, liquid, and gas. And maybe you retained the fact that all matter will change states under the right conditions. Water, for example, takes three forms in your kitchen alone: liquid water, ice, and water vapor (steam). Nothing uncommon so far. Class dismissed.

But wait—what about glass? Solid, right? Windowpanes, drinking glasses, and tiny unicorns are all solid stuff that doesn’t go with the flow. But you may have heard that glass is actually a “super-cooled liquid.” A solid theory? Not quite. Glass is, in fact, an intermediate state of matter that your chemistry teacher probably glossed over—an amorphous solid. Informally, the term “super-cooled liquid” could describe the variable states of any kind of matter (like saying that ice is “super-cooled” water). But glass is special, stuck somewhere between liquid and solid. To us, it appears solid in every way, but on the molecular level, it’s not as clearly organized as crystals like table salt or diamond. Kind of like those people who appear to have it all together, but really, they’re in dire need of the Marie Kondo treatment.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Where Does Whiskey Get Its Color?

March 28, 2016


Whether it’s a sweet, smoky bourbon or a perfectly peaty single malt, one of the charms of whiskey (spelled “whisky,” without the “e,” in Scotland) is its warm amber color. But many whiskey drinkers might not know that when their favorite spirit comes off the still, it’s as clear as water. Its familiar, golden brown hue comes from the barreling stage, where the wood used (usually charred white oak) imparts color and complex flavors to the whiskey. In fact, whiskey’s round, wooden home provides it with 60% of its flavor and 100% percent of its color. For certain bourbons, retired sherry or amontillado barrels are re-purposed to impart exquisitely subtle notes to the whiskey. So, next time you raise a glass of the “water of life,” give thanks to the mighty oaks that impart their organic imprint on the spirits.

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Uncommon Knowledge: Why Should You Sleep Tight?

March 21, 2016

Retro Good Night Sleep Tight Nightlight | UncommonGoods
Ever since The Great Millennial Bed Bug Resurgence, it’s hard not to feel a rush of panic sweep over you when someone suggests that you “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Bed bugs?! Really? How am I supposed to sleep now? However, once you get past the threat of tiny vermin that eat you during your REM cycle, you have to wonder about the whole “sleep tight” business. Have you been sleeping loosely all these years and didn’t know it? Continue Reading…

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Does Hold Music Have a History?

March 14, 2016

Anyone who has asked to speak to a human when trying to pay a phone bill or set up cable knows that being on hold can be a mentally trying task. What makes it even worse? The lilting Muzak that sounds vaguely like something your dentist played during your most recent root canal. Cue dental nightmare flashbacks.

While hold music is a fact of life now, back in 1962, Albert Levy filed a patent for that very same musical mainstay that grinds your gears today. How’d he come up with it? Albert noticed that incoming calls to businesses were often coming in faster than the switchboard operators could address them. He wanted to give callers something to pass the time, but he wasn’t sure what.

Then, Albert’s factory outside New York City had a problem with its phone service. When a loose wire touched a steel girder, the steel acted as an antenna and picked up the signal from a local radio station. The wire tapped into the audio, relaying the music to anyone who was on hold. Turns out, his customers loved it and applauded his entertaining efforts. This happy accident turned into a patent and the future of waiting to speak to your student loan officer was changed forever.


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Uncommon Knowledge: How Long is a Jiffy?

March 7, 2016


Got a minute? Would you believe that a “jiffy” refers to an actual unit of time? Originating in the late 18th century as slang for lightning, the word was co-opted by physical chemist Gilbert Norton Lewis to describe the amount of time it takes for light to travel one centimeter in a vacuum. Needless to say, it’s faster than the blink of an eye, at about 33.3564 picoseconds. Given that lightning’s visible radiation travels at the speed of light, jiffy’s leap from nickname to nanosecond-splitting speed is a natural one. Not coincidentally, Dr. Lewis also created the now-familiar word photon to describe a unit of light—be it particle or wave. Now, if it took you more than the minute requested to read this post, you might want to work on increasing your reading speed…by a jiffy or two.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Can You Smile ‘Til You Mean It?

February 29, 2016

Smiling Jizo Garden Sculpture | UncommonGoods
According to a 2012 study, all that “say cheese” business can actually give you a happier outlook. Researchers trained 169 university students to hold chopsticks in their mouths in such a way that they’d force particular facial expressions—one neutral, one a standard forced smile with just the upturned mouth, and one a genuine smile with the addition of crinkled eyes.

Once the participants learned their expressions, they were asked to perform some modestly stressful tasks. One task required them to trace a star with their non-dominant hand while looking at their reflection in the mirror. If the image of 169 students tracing stars with chopsticks in their mouths doesn’t make you smile, the research outcome should—the subjects with both genuine and “forced” smiles had lower heart rates than those with the neutral expression, meaning they were less stressed. So go ahead, smile through those tax returns and trips to the DMV—it might help!


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