As long-time readers know, on most Fridays, I share a little “behind the curtain” look into making Now I Know. Today, I want to use the opportunity to talk about a few stories I didn’t write, and why.
The fact: Giraffes have blue tongues
Giraffes are weird, with their really long necks and all. But it turns out they also have weird tongues. They’re very long, measuring 45 to 50 cm (or about a foot and a half long) and more importantly, I thought, they’re blue.
Why I didn’t write about this? The fact is great — blue tones are rare in nature, after all. But there’s not much of a story beyond the fact. Giraffe tongues are blue-ish because they have a lot of melanin, but why do they have a lot of melanin? That’s not clear. The BBC says that “there’s still no definitive explanation for this, but the leading theory is that the melanin provides extra UV protection, preventing their delicate tongues from getting sunburnt as they feed up high,” but that’s proven difficult to study.
I considered writing the story anyway, saying simply that this was the prevailing wisdom. But there’s reason to believe that’s not the right explanation. There are two species in the Giraffidae family — giraffes and a zebra-like creature known as okapi found only in central Africa. Okapi, while cousins of the giraffe, do not have long necks. But despite this, okapi nonetheless have long, blue tongues.
The fact: Instead of robbing a bank, a good Samaritan simply broken in and fake robbed it.
Here’s the story, from the Bank of England’s website.
In 1836, the Directors of the Bank of England received anonymous letters. The writer claimed to have access to their gold, and offered to meet them in the gold vault at an hour of their choosing.
The Directors were finally persuaded to gather one night in the vault. At the agreed hour a noise was heard from beneath the floor and a man popped up through some of the floor boards.
The man was a sewerman who, during repair work, had discovered an old drain that ran immediately under the gold vault.
After the initial shock, a stock take revealed that he hadn’t taken any gold. For his honesty, the Bank of England rewarded him with a gift of £800. This would be worth about £90,000 in today’s money
Why didn’t I write about this? It sounds more like legend than fact. No, not because it’s outlandish — many of the things I write about are outlandish. But in this case, every single source I found says that it’s a legend — although perhaps one that actually happened. The Bank’s own website says simply that “there is a story that suggests that we had a lucky escape in Victorian times” before leading into the story itself, republished above. To make matters worse, I couldn’t find a single source that cited anything other than the Bank’s website. Oh well.
The fact: The iPhone snooze button snoozes alarms for nine minutes, which is a really weird increment if you think about it.
We tend to think in “round” numbers — basically, multiples of ten or maybe of five. And nine is so close to ten, it’s kind of stupid that the snooze button gives us nine extra minutes in bed instead of the full ten. (Even the fact that the word “full” there makes sense supports that assertion.)
Why didn’t I write about this? The short version is we don’t really know why this happened, and to make matters worse, the “best” explanation is based on pseudoscience. Here’s Readers’ Digest on the history of the 9-minute snooze:
Alarm clocks did exist before the snooze function, so there was already a standard gear setup that innovators had to work with. Getting the gear teeth to line up to allow for exactly ten minutes wasn’t possible, so they had to choose between nine minutes and a few seconds or a little bit over ten minutes.
OK, that makes sense. But why choose a bit less than nine minutes over a bit more than ten? No one knows. Readers’ Digest offers three different explanations, all of which may as well be blind guesses. One is that ten minutes allegedly give you too much of snooze, making you cranky (although there’s no science behind that). Another suggests that it’s about efficiency — no one would miss the extra minute of snooze-time, but you can get stuff done if you’re out of bed during that extra 60 seconds. And another theory said that it was just easier to make clocks with the shorter snooze window. But again, none of these are supported by any science, history, or anything else.
To make things even more complicated, once alarm clock tech advanced, many newer ones dropped the 9-minute snooze, instead offering a choice — five minutes, ten minutes, or in some cases, a custom setting. Apple brought it back for the iPhone for no obvious reason, except maybe to illicit stories like this one.
In any event, those are three stories I didn’t share with regular articles, but I wanted to still share them somehow — so, there you go.
The Now I Know Week in Review
Monday: More Accurately, He Was The Hamburglar: As I wrote this, I kept thinking how strange the story is, even by my standards. I really have zero idea how something like this happens — it’s identity theft in a way, but it’s so trivially easy to verify the veracity of thief’s claim that you’d expect it to simply not work. And yet it did, for years! I just don’t get it.
Tuesday: The Other Side of The Other Side of Midnight: A tale about a movie, but not the one you think.
Wednesday: Harvard Versus Hard Knocks: After reading this, take a few minutes and read this Wall Street Journal article from October 2019, following up on the lives of the three inmates.
Thursday: The Day That Never Happened: I have an odd fascination with time zones.
And some other things you should check out:
Some long reads for the weekend.
1) “The Girl in the Kent State Photo” (Washington Post, 19 minutes, April 2021). You know the photo, probably. If not, you won’t forget it after clicking that link. The subhead of the story: “In 1970, an image of a dead protester immediately became iconic. But what happened to the 14-year-old kneeling next to him?”
(And, by the way, if you had asked me to guess who old the girl was, I would have said something closer to 24 than to 14.)
2) “How To Catch A Chess Cheater: Ken Regan Finds Moves Out Of Mind” (Chess Life Magazine, 21 minutes, June 2014). A profile of Ken Regan, a guy who really goes to great lengths to catch people cheating at chess. From the article:
A ubiquitous Internet combined with button-sized wireless communications devices and chess programs that can easily wipe out the world champion make the temptation today to use hi-tech assistance in rated chess greater than ever. According to Regan, since 2006 there has been a dramatic increase in the number of worldwide cheating cases. Today the incident rate approaches roughly one case per month, in which usually half involve teenagers. The current anti-cheating regulations of the world chess federation are too outdated to include guidance about disciplining illegal computer assistance, so Regan himself monitors most major events in real-time, including open events, and when a tournament director becomes suspicious for one reason or another and wants to take action, Regan is the first man to get a call.
3) “Your Words Against Mine” (Sports Illustrated, 19 minutes, December 1995). Another board game selection — this one is a look into competitive Scrabble.
Have a great weekend!