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…
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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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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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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Retired NYC subway cars have to go somewhere. From August 2001-April 2010, the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority sent 2,500 retired cars to New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. The cars were stripped and decontaminated before being dropped into the ocean to serve as homes for the many species of fish and crustaceans that could colonize the structures—think a coral reef made out of subways. Underwater photos have shown that the new structures are thriving. They provide thousands of square feet for invertebrates like blue mussels to live on, along with food and shelter to slower fish that might need to duck into safety from a predator. Now if only we could figure out what fish rush hour is like?
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So romantic. Welcome to the Valentine’s Day edition of Uncommon Knowledge—a place where we can talk about all the romantic things animals do for each other. For one, sea otters hold hands when they sleep. They do this mostly so they don’t drift away from their pals while they snooze on their backs in the water, but the result is true intimacy.
Another romantic gesture? Penguins will propose to new mates with a pebble. Many penguins assemble their nests out of pebbles, so really, it’s a way of offering their beloved a promise to build a home with them. Maybe we can follow suit and start replacing engagement rings with a nice adjustable rate mortgage?
Brolgas cranes, like most cranes, are monogamous and will mate with the same partner every year, typically at the same nesting spot. However, the brolgas know a thing or two about keeping the romance alive—no matter how many years they’ve been together, the brolgas will still court their mate with an intricate mating dance. Ooh la la!
Okay, let’s do some rapid-fire romance: Ready for a puppy fact? Male puppies will intentionally let female puppies win when they play-fight so they can get to know them better. Like seahorses? They’re monogamous and will hold each other’s tails when traveling.
Ain’t love grand?
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The question of whether robots and computers can love is at least as complex as defining love itself; poets and greeting card writers have been grappling with that one for ages. The question of digital love hinges on the effectiveness of artificial intelligence (A.I.) and the ability of A.I. to give rise to emotions. In the course of predicting true A.I. in the early 1950s, computer scientist Alan Turing developed the Turing Test, a tool to assess whether a machine’s intelligence is indistinguishable from a human being’s. A.I.s have come a long way since, making Turing’s test a blunt instrument, but not settling issues of whether they can feel. But if Hollywood is any indication, we can be sure of this at least: humans can love machines—sometimes tragically. In the Sci-Fi classic Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) falls for the Replicant femme fatale Rachel (Sean Young), challenging his sworn duty to “retire” Replicants who try to pass for human. More recently, Her has Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) becoming enamored of his sophisticated new OS, Samantha (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johanssen). Their affair is all the more surreal for the fact that “Samantha” is a disembodied A.I. with no physical form. Hollywood continues to be infatuated with the question of A.I. love, offering dark cautionary tales like Ex Machina (2015). We may be fated to fall in love with the computers that we interact with every day, but can they love us back? I tried this simple experiment: I asked Siri on my iPhone “do you love me?” With analytic coolness and a dash of irony, she replied, “you’re looking for love in all the wrong places.”
Indeed, she does! In fair Verona where we lay our scene, the volunteer Secretaries of il Club di Giulietta (the Juliet Club) receive, read, and respond to more than 6,000 letters from the lovelorn each year. Think of it as “Dear Abby” with a Shakespearean inspiration. Believe it or not, you can pen your desires, romantic dreams, and tragic tales of unrequited love, address them simply to “Juliet / Verona,” and they’ll be delivered to the Club’s team of concerned cupids. The Secretaries read every one, save them in an archive, and send a handwritten response to the author with encouragement and advice for how to mend a broken heart. If you’re not into the pen-and-paper approach, you can pour your heart out digitally in a note via the Club’s website. Whatever form it takes, your letter will play a role in a centuries-old romantic tradition inspired by the Bard’s timeless tale of star-crossed lovers.
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