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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Do Animals Have a Knack for Numbers?

December 5, 2016

Frankie the Frog Watering Can - UncommonGoods

While you shouldn’t count on your cat to help you pass calculus, science shows us that many species are more adept mathematically than we might have thought – particularly in the ability to count. Perhaps the most commonly known animal counters are crows (Adam Duritz may have been onto something, aside from this karaoke favorite), but it turns out that salamanders, honeybees, lions, frogs, chimps, newborn chicks, and others can also count to varying degrees. Frogs searching for mates count the pulses in the croaks they hear to make sure they’re checking out the right species, lions only attack if their pride outnumbers the other, and chimps have shown they’ll both count and add in return for chocolate. Dogs, on the other hand, can’t count beyond 1 (bless their hearts), while wolves are able to discriminate between larger numbers, suggesting the dumb-down is due to our own history of dog domestication. Should these smarts really surprise us, though? Studies have shown that with other animals (especially primates) exhibiting signs of emotions, morality, and altruism, we haughty humans shouldn’t think we’re so special.

Frankie the Frog Watering Can | $42

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Is the Unicorn Ready to Rumble?

November 7, 2016

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With Scotland getting prickly as a thistle about staying in the UK post-Brexit, you might think such strife is a recent phenomenon. Nae, laddy—the roots of unrest between England and Scotland run deep and are reflected in the British royal coat-of-arms itself. The lion and the unicorn therein might look like they’re happily cooperating to support the heraldic shield in the center, but folklore has it that the two beasts aren’t exactly besties. The unicorn hails from the 14th century Scottish coat-of-arms, while the lion traditionally stands for England. And when James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, the two iconic animals were forced into coat-of-arms cooperation. But the beef between the two goes back over 5,000 years to ancient Babylonian mythology, where the unicorn represented spring and the lion stood for summer. Each year, the two fought for supremacy—and each year the lion eventually won. A popular English nursery rhyme reflects this ongoing animosity, as well as historic wars between England and Scotland:

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All round about the town.

For the time being at least, these age-old rivals continue to coexist, though the Scottish unicorn may be asking himself “should I stay or should I go?”

LED Unicorn Lamp | $78

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Who Put the Cod in Codswallop?

October 3, 2016

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A favorite PG-13 epithet of Harry’s Potter’s Hagrid, you might assume that “codswallop” is as much of a modern literary invention as “muggle.” But the term pre-dates J. K. Rowling’s lexicon and there’s an interesting debate over its etymology. One camp claims that it’s related to the history of glass bottles. In the 1870s, Hiram Codd invented the marble-stoppered, “Codd-neck” bottle for soft drinks. “Wallop” was the nickname for the cheap beer of the day, so beer drinkers dubbed the contents of Codd’s bottles “a load of coddswallop.” If you can excuse the dropping of one d over time, this colorful tale has a plausible taste. Not so fast, say those in the opposing camp, who claim a similar but somewhat more literal origin: a cod’s wallop, as in the thumping sound a captured cod makes as it flaps around on the deck of a boat. Imagine someone flapping their lips aimlessly like the hapless cod, and again you have a load of codswallop or nonsense. Fishy? Could be that both theories are complete codswallop.

BottleLoft | $38

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Whose Wish Was Mac’s Command?

September 26, 2016

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Every Mac keyboard sports a propeller-like symbol on the command keys that flank the space bar [], and you might wonder what inspired it. An age-old international symbol for “command?” An overhead diagram of an interstate cloverleaf? No, it hails from a time that Steve Jobs decided they had too many apples. In 1983, Apple computers already had a special key to invoke menu commands. Aptly called the “apple key,” it sported a little apple icon and the same cute fruit appeared next to drop-down menu items with a keyboard command. But when software with extensive menus (like MacDraw) started to look like an over-abundant orchard, Jobs wasn’t happy. According to Apple lore, Jobs complained of too many apples on the screen, exclaiming “we’re taking the Apple logo in vain!” Tasked with finding a crisp, quick alternative, bitmap designer Susan Kare had to find a small, simple icon to stand for “command.” Flipping through her international symbol dictionary for inspiration, she found a flower-like icon used in Scandinavian wayfinding to indicate a nearby historic or cultural attraction. The original icon may have been inspired by St. Hanne’s cross, a Celtic knot-like symbol associated with John the Baptist (sometimes called a shield knot). Over 30 years later, Kare’s cross is still synonymous with “command” for Mac users. Now, if we could just get rid of that spinning rainbow beach ball of doom…

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: When Did We Start Putting Proof in Our Pudding?

September 19, 2016

Proof is in the Pudding Bowls

The pot calling the kettle black. A stitch in time saves nine. She saw the light. There’s no shortage of idioms—phrases that mean more than the sum of their parts—in the English language. But while some are more or less self-explanatory, others are far more perplexing. Chief among them: The proof is in the pudding. What proof? What pudding? Why would one hide anything in pudding?

There’s a logical reason this one doesn’t quite add up. Over the centuries, the phrase was shortened from the original: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, if you want to know if the pudding is any good, you have to try it out. Hence the current phrase’s meaning that something (say, a plan) can’t be deemed successful until it’s put into action. The original proverb hails from about 14th century Britain, back when the word “proof” meant “test” and “pudding” could also mean “sausage”. Which, in medieval times, was something that really, really needed to be tested before being fully consumed.

Proof is in the Pudding Bowls | $28.99

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: When Did Lunch Become a Thing?

September 14, 2016

Stackable Lunch Pot

Ah the days of the Romans, when they would recline at the table for their one square meal a day. That’s right—one. We may take the idea of eating three meals a day for granted now, but it’s a relatively new phenomenon. Back in the Middle Ages, before the dawn of electricity, humans rose early to make the most of the daylight. By midday, with six hours or so of work under their belts, people would break for their meal—the largest and usually the only. But as artificial light entered the game in the 19th century, the wealthy started shifting their days and the main meal was consumed at later and later times. As such, the custom of mid-day snacking arose. By the time the Industrial Revolution hit, workers needed calories to continue working further into the evening hours. That’s when lunch went mainstream in the Western world. As for the idea of the hallowed family dinner, we have the 1950s to thank for that. No matter what and how much of it you eat when, enjoy it—and rest assured that you’re not breaking any longstanding biological traditions.

Stackable Lunch Pot | $24.95

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Can You Get Sucked Into a Video Game?

September 12, 2016

Video Game Design Kit

If you’ve found yourself crushing candy in your dreams or felt the urge to fling a Poké Ball at a whining air conditioner, you may have fallen victim to Tetris Syndrome. After a marathon session battling it out in front of a screen, your mind begins to project a game’s strategy onto the real world, warping the way you interact with objects and people. The phenomenon was first described in a 1994 Wired article, in which the author noticed some strange side effects to his non-stop Tetris playing: “At night, geometric shapes fell in the darkness as I lay on loaned tatami floor space… During rare jaunts from the house, I visually fit cars and trees and people together.”

Old-school gamers also describe the effect: Sodoku players start to see streets as vertical or horizontal numerical puzzles, and speedcubers mentally twist their surroundings like a Rubik’s Cube. Scientists hypothesize that the way we play is linked to our procedural memory, and the sensation felt after a game bender taps into our innate desire to organize and create. And while it may just be a harmless hallucination, if you start seeing the world scroll after hours of shredding on Guitar Hero, your mind might be telling you it’s time to take a break.

Bloxels Video Game Design Kit | $49.95

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Building Would Have Been a Mile High?

September 6, 2016

21885_uk091416The Mile High building, of course. Although it exists only in a few impressively vertical drawings, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Illinois skyscraper—commonly known as the “Mile High” building—was, as the name suggests, to tower 5,280 feet over the city of Chicago. Although Wright professed to hate cities in general, he wasn’t one to be outdone by the soaring glass boxes of the midcentury modern mainstream. His colossal “Sky-City” was a vision of a skyscraper to end all skyscrapers: 528 stories, 18.4 million square feet, nuclear-powered elevators, and parking for 15,000 cars and 150 personal helicopter pods. The Illinois never got off the drawing board, but its ambitious scale and bundled, crystalline structure inspired the Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building (though only about half the elevation of the Illinois proposal).

Here’s an amazing animation of the Mile High building created by the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Skyline of Love | $160

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