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Blimp vs. Zeppelin: What's the Difference?

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The Dilemma: You're at a football game and there's a large, cigar-shaped object hovering suspiciously close to you. Question: Is it a blimp or a zeppelin? And more important, why didn't you get better seats?

People You Can Impress: whoever's perched next to you in the nosebleeds.

The Quick Trick: When in doubt, just think of Led Zeppelin. Zeppelins are heavy metal—or at least they've got metal skeletons. Blimps, on the other hand, aren't.

The Explanation: Both blimps and zeppelins work by being lighter than air—they're filled with a gas that's lighter than oxygen, so they go up like hot-air balloons. But balloons can't be steered. Realizing this, German Count (Graf) Ferdinand von Zeppelin decided he wanted to devise a "dirigible [or steerable] balloon" in the 1890s for use in military reconnaissance work. Eventually, these dirigible balloons took the generic name zeppelin and were used as bombers or scout craft through World War I. This was just one of their many uses, however. The airships doubled as a major mode of transportation between the wars, routinely making transatlantic flights, and the enormous Graf Zeppelin even circumnavigated the globe in 1929.

So just how popular were these zeppelins? Well, enough that the spire on the top of the Empire State Building was designed as a docking mast for them, although that idea proved impractical due to the serious updrafts (and besides, who wants to disembark while dangling 1,300 feet over Manhattan?).

Incidentally, anyone who's seen the footage of the Hindenburg incinerating at Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937 can see evidence of the main difference between zeppelins and blimps: zeppelins have rigid metal skeletons, making them suitable for longer trips in a wider variety of weather conditions (which also makes them expensive). Blimps, on the other hand, are simply shaped balloons with fins and an engine. Oh, and as for the name "blimp"? It dates back to 1916 and mimics the sound made when the balloon is thumped with a finger.

Led and Other Zeppelins
Led Zeppelin is to date the greatest band ever named after a flying machine (take that, Jefferson Airplane). The band's name is completely attributable to Keith Moon, the late and eccentric drummer of The Who. The pessimistic Moon thought the band, originally called the New Yardbirds, would "go over like a lead zeppelin." But the plucky young band reveled in the challenge and quickly adopted the name—with a minor change in spelling.

Excerpted from What's the Difference?

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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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