• Secrets of the world's most famous women-only hotel

    Through most of the 20th century, the Barbizon Hotel in Manhattan was a place where single women, mostly those new to New York City, could live in safety. Historian Paulina Bren has published a book on the history of the Barbizon and its illustrious residents, The Barbizon, The New York Hotel That Set Women Free, for which HBO has already secured the TV rights.   

    In the 1920s and 30s the Barbizon advertised its role in protecting young working women from predatory men, the "wolves of New York", capitalising on the influx of women to Manhattan after the First World War, but after the Great Depression it offered a different kind of sanctuary. "Working women were considered deeply suspect for taking a job away from a 'real breadwinner'," explains Bren. "If you were walking around New York and you looked like you were going to work, it could be a pretty hostile environment." Nevertheless, some persisted. The respectable Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School took over three floors of the hotel for its students, as it filled up with young women "determined to type their way out of small-town America".

    But it was the 1950s, the hotel's "dollhouse" era, when hundreds of young, aspiring models and actresses found their way to the Barbizon, that Bren most enjoyed exploring. "It was an era when women were supposed to be so prim and proper, but there was a bubbling sexuality," she says.

    Notable Barbizon residents included Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith, Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, and Tippi Hedren. While the hotel opened to men in 1981 and was converted to apartments in 2007, there are five women from the hotel's mid-century heyday still living there. Read an overview of the Barbizon's history at The Guardian.

    [via Damn Interesting]

  • The village that will soon crumble into the sea

    Covehithe is a village on the coast of Suffolk in the UK. It's been there a thousand years, but is doomed to be completely washed away by the sea somewhere between thirty and eighty years from now. There are no plans to save the village. Imagine being a landowner there and trying to get insurance! But practically, what you'd really be looking for is a new home. Tom Scott explains the village's fate, and single-handedly turns Covehithe into a tourist attraction against its will.

  • The stories behind 15 pasta shapes

    While it's not true that pasta first came to Italy from China with Marco Polo, it did travel across the world due to its portability. It was in Italy that pasta was made into an art form, and there are way more pasta shapes than most Americans have ever heard of. Each of these pasta shapes has a story, although some are old and historically murky and others are recent and well-documented, such as Celentano and cavatappi.   

    Cavatappi didn't arrive on the scene until the 1960s. That's when the Italian pasta brand Barilla introduced a new tubular, corkscrew-shaped pasta called Cellentani. The name is a reference to Adriano Celentano, an Italian pop singer whose energetic stage presence earned him the nickname moleggiato, or "springs." Barilla writes on its website: "As the shape resembles a coiled spring, it all made sense." The name cavatappi was actually coined later as a generic term for the pasta shape because Celentano was trademarked by Barilla.

    You are probably already familiar with Adriano Celentano. Read the stories behind 14 other pasta shapes, and a brief history of pasta in general at Mental Floss. While the list will introduce you to new pastas, the origin stories are not totally comprehensive. For example, Wikipedia tells us exactly how Cellentani came about.

    This particular shape was born in the 1970s at Barilla in Parma[2] when a set of pasta dies had been mistakenly made with a spiral (instead of straight) set of lines. These produced pasta in a spiral or spring (molla in Italian) shape.

    So consider the list at Mental Floss to be a portal that may take you down the internet rabbit hole. That's what happened to me.

  • The history of the March Madness bracket

    It's time to make your predictions for the 2021 men's NCAA basketball tournament! You can get a bracket to fill out here. The tournament bracket is handy for keeping up with games, and for understanding how teams are eliminated along the way. The first such bracket was organized in the 19th century by chess master Howard Staunton.

    For a chess tournament in 1851, Staunton had 16 players draw lots for random pairings, called brackets because they resembled the punctuation marks of the same name. The eight winners would then draw lots for pairings, and the four winners from that round would do the same, leaving two finalists. The idea, Staunton said, was "to bring the two best players in the Tournament into collision for the chief prize." The reality, however, fell short: Random drawing after every round led to complaints that some players had easier matches. As a result, chess tournaments shifted to a round-robin format.

    Brackets were used again—and have been ever since—for the Wimbledon tennis tournament in 1877, and they found a home in college basketball in 1939, when the National Association of Basketball Coaches had an eight-team tournament. The University of Oregon beat The Ohio State in what is regarded as the first NCAA Tournament.

    The science of constructing a bracket has evolved quite a bit since that chess tournament. The NCAA ranks teams for seeding to make sure the top teams don't meet each other in the early rounds, and in most years, there are geographic considerations (but not this year). Read how the tournament bracket came about and how filling it out became such a thing at Mental Floss.

  • The bizarre tale of the world's last lost tourist

    Here's a cautionary tale about traveling alone to a country where you don't speak the language. What could possibly go wrong? But it's not a horror story, because instead of laughing at Erwin Kreuz, Americans were so charmed by his good-natured naivety that they made him famous.  

    In 1977, 49-year-old German brewery worker Erwin Kreuz blew his life savings on his first flight — a once-in-a-lifetime birthday trip to San Francisco. He'd seen it on TV, and he wanted to visit the Wild West. As the World Airways flight from Frankfurt stopped to refuel in a small airport in Bangor, Maine, before continuing on to California, an air stewardess who had finished her shift told Kreuz to "have a nice time in San Francisco." Her choice of words would change Kreuz's life.

    Kreuz, who typically enjoyed drinking 17 beers a day, was a little groggy, and on hearing this, grabbed his suitcase, got off the plane, went through customs, jumped in a cab and asked the driver to take him to the city. He wandered Bangor for three days enjoying the sights and sounds that Maine had to offer. Unfortunately, Kreuz thought he was in San Francisco.

    When the mixup was eventually uncovered, that's when Kreuz's adventures really began. Read his story at SFgate. 

    [via Digg]

  • How a failed dam legalized marrying the dead

    The Malpasset Dam in France was built in the 1950s to regulate the Reyran River, which was dry most of the year, but carried torrents of water in the winter and spring. Experienced dam builder André Coyne was in charge of the project, which was completed in 1954. It took five years for the reservoir behind the dam to fill, but on December 2, 1959, the last few meters filled quickly. Officials decided not to open the spillways because that would interfere with a nearby road-building project.

    Later that night, the thin walls of the dam collapsed under the massive weight of the water and a huge wave swept through the valley, destroying all structures including houses, roads, railway lines, telephone and electricity network all the way to Fréjus. Large chunks of concrete, from the breached dam, some weighing up to 600 tons, were found more than a mile away. Over 400 people perished and 7,000 were left homeless. André Coyne, the dam's chief engineer, was deeply affected by the tragedy. He died less than a year later.

    The major takeaway from the disaster was that it was important to adequately understand the geology of the rocks over which a dam was to be constructed. But the most immediate consequence of the dam failure was the laying down of a law that legalized marriage with a dead partner.

    Why that happened is a story you'll need to read at Amusing Planet.

    [via Strange Company]

  • Remembering the golden age of hot sodas

    In the early part of the 20th century, soda fountains were all the rage. In addition to a place to get tasty refreshments while shopping, a store's soda fountain was a novelty and a meeting place. Carbonated drinks were mixed up fresh behind the counter, and all kinds of innovative recipes were promoted. But soda pop and ice cream floats weren't all that popular in cold weather, so soda fountains came up with creative hot drinks. Oh sure, there was coffee, tea, and hot cocoa, but also soup and proprietary recipes that combined soda with bizarre ingredients like eggs, bouillon, or clam juice.   

    The popularity of hot drinks didn't happen on its own. Trade magazines and books not only published recipes, which they often called formulas, for everything from hot pineapple juice to hot malted orange, but they also offered promotional ideas and sales tips. An issue of The Soda Fountain, for example, suggested staging a "Hot Soda Pageant This Winter." The editors proposed selecting different drinks each month and promoting them with window displays. One month would promote hot milk and egg drinks; another bouillons, broths, and soups; another coffee, tea, and chocolate drinks; another hot fruit drinks. During malted-milk-drinks months, they recommended a "peaceful scene with cows grazing, milkmaids, great pails of foaming milk and happy, healthy youngsters in the foreground."

    Read about the era of "hot sodas," and find recipes for Hot Cherry Egg Bounce, Hot Egg Lime Juice Fizz, and Reeking Smatch at Atlas Obscura.

  • Netflix would like you to get your own account

    Netflix is testing ways to keep people from using other people's accounts. A few users have been confronted with a prompt to verify their accounts. They are being somewhat soft about it as you can see from this screenshot. The "verify later" seems to work just fine, and lets you go about your business.

    Demanding an account verification may be useful to prevent unauthorized users from accessing an account, but what about people who are using a shared password? Netflix has been famously lax about people sharing passwords, as it tends to tempt people into opening their own accounts.

    The move potentially represents the beginning of a strategy shift by Netflix, which has historically not attempted to police password sharing. "Password sharing is something you have to learn to live with," Netflix CEO Reed Hastings declared in 2016, "because there's so much legitimate password sharing — like you sharing with your spouse, with your kids … so there's no bright line, and we're doing fine as is."

    But THR senior editor Eriq Gardner predicted in 2019 that piracy crackdowns could be the next front in the streaming wars after the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment announced a working group to reduce unauthorized access to content.

    Describing the organization as "an antipiracy spinoff of the MPAA," Gardner noted, "The economics of streaming nearly demand it. Platforms are spending billions of dollars annually on both original content and rights to old shows. To become profitable, media companies will need to grow paid subscribers rapidly. AT&T boldly predicted 50 million subs for HBO Max by 2024. As part of that push, it may prove irresistible to target the more than one-fifth of young adults who, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, say they borrow passwords from people who do not live with them."

    So far, this is just a test. They may well come up with something more draconian in the future. Read more at the Hollywood Reporter.

    [via Mashable]

  • When men wore corsets

    We all know about corsets for women, once a part of everyday life for certain social classes, and now representative of the struggle to appear attractive. But they weren't just for women. Men wore them as well in different places at different times; they just tried to keep their corset use discreet. It wouldn't do to admit that their exceptional bodies needed help to look that way!

    The corset has endured hundreds of iterations from its induction into fashion by Catherine de Medici in the 1500s up until its usage diminished as a result of rations for the second World War. But men have been involved in corsets since corsets were invented. One of America's founding fathers, Thomas Paine, was a corset maker by family trade. According to research, "Stays or corsets were used in the army (especially among the cavalry), for hunting, and for strenuous exercise, not unlike a weight lifter's belt today". Purser Thomas Chew, a 30-year career Naval officer, who fought in the War of 1812 wore his corset to sea. But as history has shown, sometimes function becomes fashion…

    Messy Nessy Chic has a brief history of men's fashions of the 18th and 19th centuries and how a corset could help them achieve the stylish look of their day.

  • Women used to dominate the beer industry, so they were burned at the stake

    When water was often unsafe to drink, people turned to wine. But beer takes a lot less time to make, and is somewhat nutritious besides. Brewing beer is akin to cooking, so making beer became one of the household chores that women performed.  

    From the Stone Age to the 1700s, ale – and, later, beer – was a household staple for most families in England and other parts of Europe. The drink was an inexpensive way to consume and preserve grains. For the working class, beer provided an important source of nutrients, full of carbohydrates and proteins. Because the beverage was such a common part of the average person's diet, fermenting was, for many women, one of their normal household tasks.

    Some enterprising women took this household skill to the marketplace and began selling beer. Widows or unmarried women used their fermentation prowess to earn some extra money, while married women partnered with their husbands to run their beer business.

    The difference between making beer at home for the family and selling beer is that one is profitable, so you can see where this is going. Some men thought women should spend their time at home instead of selling beer. Others wanted in on the money to be made. Read how women brewers came to be accused of witchcraft at The Conversation.

    [via Smithsonian]

  • How movie explosions look so much better than real explosions

    The most notable difference between a Hollywood explosion and a real explosion is that a movie explosion does not kill the protagonist. That's a given. We've seen how our heroes can casually walk away from explosions without even feeling the blast force -and it looks good because of the bright flames behind them. And that's the next difference. Those colorful flashes do not happen in most real explosions of the same size. Nuclear bombs may be the exception here. Tom Scott shows us what's done to make them look so appealing. This explanation will surely remind you of a song.

    [via Digg]

  • Why isn't fish considered meat during Lent?

    Lent is the 40-day period, not including Sundays, leading up to Easter. It is a time of fasting and reflection, and in the Catholic church, part of that fasting means no meat on Fridays. However, fish is not considered meat, so the Friday fish fry has become traditional. But fish is still animal flesh, so why is it not considered to be meat?    

    Legend has it that centuries ago a medieval pope with connections to Europe's fishing business banned red meat on Fridays to give his buddies' industry a boost. But that story isn't true. Sunday school teachers have a more theological answer: Jesus fasted for 40 days and died on a Friday. Catholics honor both occasions by making a small sacrifice: avoiding animal flesh one day out of the week. That explanation is dandy for a homily, but it doesn't explain why only red meat and poultry are targeted and seafood is fine.

    For centuries, the reason evolved with the fast. In the beginning, some worshippers only ate bread. But by the Middle Ages, they were avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy. By the 13th century, the meat-fish divide was firmly established—and Saint Thomas Aquinas gave a lovely answer explaining why: sex, simplicity, and farts.

    To make sense of all that, you'll need to read the article at Mental Floss. Of course, the difference between fish and other meats is subject to change- at different times in different places, beavers, capybaras, muskrats, and alligators have been classified as fish.   

  • 100-million-year-old seafloor sediment bacteria have been resuscitated

    A Japanese research team drilled into the sea floor under 6,000 feet of ocean in the South Pacific Gyre and pulled up sludge that had been sitting there for 100 million years. Could anything survive in it? Well, consider this:

    The gyre is a marine desert more barren than all but the aridest places on Earth. Ocean currents swirl around it, but within the gyre, the water stills and life struggles because few nutrients enter. Near the center is both the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility (made famous by H.P. Lovecraft as the home of the be-tentacled Cthulhu) and the South Pacific garbage patch.  At times the closest people are astronauts passing above on the International Space Station.

    The sea here is so miserly that it takes one million years for a meter of marine "snow"—corpses, poo and dust—to accumulate on the bottom. The tale of all that time can total as little as 10 centimeters. It is the least productive patch of water on the planet.

    Against all odds, bacteria cells from the retrieved cores came alive in the presence of nutrients -and started reproducing! Some types of bacteria produce spores that encase the cell to protect it, but this bacteria was not that sort. What kind of bacteria can lay dormant for 100 million years and come to life? And how afraid of it should we be? Read about this experiment at Scientific American.

    [via Damn Interesting]

    Previously: "Scientists revive 100-million-year-old microbes buried in the ocean floor"

  • Post-mortem: the new 'Star Wars' trilogy wasn't worth it

    It's been a year since the Skywalker saga closed for good. The latest Star Wars trilogy grossed $4.5 billion worldwide, outstripping what Disney paid for the franchise, and led to plenty of spinoffs. But how does that compare to the damage it left behind? The arc of the three movies left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of the people connected with it. At the top of the list are Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega.  

    Lots of great movies had tortuous paths to the big screen, but they tend to be more of the "director and star didn't get along" variety. The treatment that Tran endured was something uglier and more modern — and she wasn't alone in the Star Wars universe. Likewise, Boyega had to deal with racist fans on social media, although he was outspoken about his frustrations with how Disney sidelined his character along the way: "They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley," he said last summer. "Let's be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I'm not exposing anything." Both he and Tran have reason to complain: By The Rise of Skywalker, they felt like supporting characters that the filmmakers didn't know what to do with. So much for diversity.

    Others were affected, too: Driver and Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Rian Johnson, Mark Hamill, George Lucas, and millions of lifelong Star Wars fans. Read how they feel about the last Star Wars trilogy at Mel magazine.

    PS: If you're interested, there's more in a new interview with Kelly Marie Tran at The Hollywood Reporter.

  • A too-typical tragedy of science in the Soviet Union

    Botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov had a lifelong mission to prevent starvation by improving food production. His native Russia suffered numerous famines under both the tsar and the Soviets. The scientist would walk hundreds of miles in remote locations all over the world to collect seeds that might be bred to grow grain in the cold Russian climate. He initiated experimental growing programs that harnessed Mendel's gene theory for crop improvements.      

    At the end of 1920, Vavilov was promoted to director of the Institute of Applied Botany in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). The previous director, the plant biologist Robert Regel, had died of typhus the previous year. Shortly before his death, he had written to the Commissariat of Agriculture, recommending Vavilov as his successor. Vavilov was not only 'the future pride of Russian science' but an especially agreeable person, belonging 'to a category of people of whom you won't hear a bad word from anybody at all'. The Institute, under its new leadership, was envisaged as a scientific centre for testing and improving crop varieties to prevent future famines. It was also to be the home of Vavilov's grand new project: A vast seed collection, acting as a genetic library, a repository of useful genes which he could use to breed new, superior plants. Arriving at the Institute, Vavilov quickly realised that he was at the helm of an institution devastated by poverty. The rooms were in a state of complete disrepair, a chaotic mess of dust and broken furniture. The pipes had burst, and the existing stock of seeds devoured by the starving masses.

    The Institute was not alone in its state of neglect; the whole city was in ruins. Hospitals had been abandoned, public transport was at a standstill, and there was an atmosphere of hopelessness among the dwindling population. Leading academics didn't escape the clutches of poverty and hunger. In Petrograd, seven out of the Academy of Science's 44 members died of starvation. Even Ivan Pavlov, a national treasure famous for being the country's only living Nobel laureate, had to scavenge for firewood and food. Laboratory animals disappeared from their cages and appeared on dinner plates. Lab equipment was repurposed to make moonshine in exchange for food on the black market. Hunger wasn't the only obstacle academics faced. Scientists returning from a conference or a field trip often found their laboratories looted and houses occupied by refugees from the countryside.

    Vavilov managed to turn that situation around, collect more seeds from around the world, and continue the Institute's work. His adventures in the field continued, and his reputation grew as the USSR went from the era of Lenin to the era of Stalin. But Vavilov then had to deal with Trofim Lysenko, an agronomist with lesser experience and education, but with a philosophy that meshed better with that of Stalin and the Communist ideologists. When it came time to lay blame on someone for the Soviet Union's agricultural failures, Vavilov had a target on his back. Read about the life and legacy of Nikolai Vavilov at Damn Interesting. You can also listen to it in podcast form.  

  • Deception in the rainforest

    Don't you just love it when you watch a video for the comedy you expect, and end up learning something neat? In his latest episode of True Facts, Ze Frank is happy to introduce us to some weird creatures of the rainforest and the things they do to survive. With footage taken by David Weiller and Thomas Marent, he covers techniques like camouflage, toxicity, and mimicry that rainforest creatures use to avoid predators, which are all forms of deception. Plants do some of these things, too. You can't trust what you see in the rainforest, but you will enjoy the fabulous photography of bizarre animals in this video.

  • How the politics of race played out during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic

    In 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society to support Black Philadelphia residents. Just a few years later in 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever descended on the city. Yellow fever is caused by a virus spread by mosquitos, but at the time, it was ascribed to miasma or contagion among people. Treatments included bloodletting, cold baths, chewing garlic, and drinking whiskey.

    As yellow fever began ravaging Philadelphia, people were dying by the dozens daily. With much of the city's officials and the wealthy fleeing the contagion, "there were not enough people willing to tend to the sick or bury the dead," says Barnes.

    Rush put out a call for help from Allen and Jones and their Free African Society, in part because he and others believed Africans were immune to yellow fever, says Gamble. This theory was integral to a broader view of black bodies that was used to support slavery—that they were less susceptible to certain illnesses.

    The Free African Society was established to help blacks, not whites. And yet Allen and Jones answered Rush's plea. "They wanted blacks to take care of their white brethren so they'd be seen as human beings," says Gamble.

    Their efforts did not pay off in goodwill. Read what happened at Smithsonian.

  • In which we learn where "that song" came from

    How much of your knowledge of classical music comes from old cartoons? I thought so. Many of us cannot listen to "Ride of the Valkyries" without hearing "kill the wabbit" in our heads. Vincent Alexander shows us just how many of those classic compositions were used by Warner Bros. and Disney in their animated shorts. With videos! He identifies the original title and composer, and gives further examples of their use in cartoons.

    There are so many examples that you will run across some pieces that you never knew were by classical composers of the past. Or in other words, you know the songs but didn't know who wrote them. Now you will.

    There are 40, count 'em, 40 videos in the Twitter thread, and at Threadreader.

    [via Metafilter]

  • Artificial intelligence tries QWOP

    QWOP, arguably the most difficult video game ever, was created by Bennett Foddy in 2008. The point is to control a sprinter with four keys that move his thighs and calf muscles. A few seconds in, and you're reduced to just trying to control your laughter. Most of us gave up pretty early, but some took QWOP as a challenge and got the runner through a 100-meter dash. The QWOP record, as of now, is 48 seconds! Could an algorithm trained to play QWOP do any better? Wesley Liao trained one to find out. While his AI learned to make the runner perform better than I ever will, it could not outdo the best human gamers. Read more on the experiment at Gizmodo.

  • Six key steps for getting kids to sleep

    By the time bedtime rolls around, parents are exhausted. However, their children do everything in their power to extend the day, which leads to more stress for the entire family. A study involving 59 British experts from a range of disciplines found that there are six key parts of achieving a successful bedtime routine for children between two and eight years old. They are:  

    Brushing teeth before bed.

    Time consistency for going to bed.

    Book reading before bed.

    Avoiding food/drinks before bed.

    Avoiding use of electronic devices before bed.

    Calming activities with the child before bed, including bath, shower and talking.

    However, you don't have to have all six to be successful—if you're lucky. And from experience, I can tell you that even when you have all six factors consistently, you still won't have a smooth experience every night. Read more about this research at The Guardian.

    [via Digg]