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Hunting for Answers

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In the late-1980s, my grandfather made a bold and sarcastic prediction. One day, he said, video games would magically beam your opponent onto the couch beside you. In 2006, anything is possible. But his comment showed extra foresight, since it came during the Burgertime era.

When you look back at the crude animations and clunky game play, it's amazing how far we've come. But there's one piece of mid-80s technology that still strikes me as groundbreaking "“ the Nintendo Zapper.

How could my TV "“ a black-and-white relic of the Vietnam era bought for $5 at a garage sale "“ know that I'd killed that evasive duck? These are the straightforward questions Wikipedia was born to answer:

"When the trigger was pulled, the game blanked out the screen with a black background for one frame, then, for one additional frame, drew a solid white rectangle around the sprite the user was supposed to be shooting at. The photodiode at the back of the Zapper would detect these changes in intensity and send a signal to the NES to indicate whether it was over a lit pixel or not. A drop followed by a spike in intensity signaled a hit. Multiple sprites were supported by flashing a solid white rectangle around each potential sprite, one per frame."

Oh. That makes sense. Maybe I was the only one who hadn't figured this out. Wouldn't that make it easy to cheat, simply by pointing the gun at a lamp? (Yes it would.)

That quirk will likely be ironed out before the sequel. That's right, there's a lot of buzz around a Nintendo Wii version. I'd imagine the 21st-century interpretation will be pretty intense. Duck Hunt: Bird Flu Prevention. This time, the ducks hunt you.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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science
Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.

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