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The Quick 10: The Oregon Trail Computer Game

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Despite my video and computer game obsessions of recent years "“ Guitar Hero, The Sims and World of Warcraft among them "“ if I had to rank the best games ever, Oregon Trail would still make my top 10 (along with Carmen Sandiego, obviously). In fact, I just spent way too much time playing it in the name of "research." Here's what that "“ and some actual research "“ uncovered.

fire1. Although you probably played it in the late "˜80s or early "˜90s, the game has been around since 1971, when a trio of student teachers from Minnesota cobbled together a program for a history class one of them was teaching. Three years later, one of the teachers took a job at Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a company that developed educational software. He allowed Oregon Trail to be uploaded to MECC's database and it spread across the state like cholera. By 1985 the game was so popular that it was released on floppy disk (remember those?) on a national level.

2.In the original version, players didn't get to aim a gun and hunt for buffalo and bear. Instead, the "shooting" happened by onomatopoeia "“ players had to type "Bang" and "Pow" as fast as possible. The faster they typed, the more meat they received. Misspelled words resulted in a failed hunting expedition.

3. The diseases the members of your party could potentially die of were dysentery, cholera, drowning, fever, a snakebite, typhoid, exhaustion, broken limbs and measles, among other things.

4. In 1994, MECC belatedly followed up the smash hit Oregon Trail with the decidedly less thrilling Yukon Trail. I should know; I definitely owned it. It was still enjoyable, but it was no Oregon Trail. Players would head out from Seattle in 1897 and take a ferry to one of two towns. Then, like the Oregon Trail, there are rivers to be forged and obstacles to be conquered. But along the way, wannabe gold diggers stumble across famous figures like Jack London, Sam Steele and Nellie Cashman. Then you get to claim and area and start panning for gold.

5. The Oregon Trail II was released in 1996. I must have lost interest by this point because I don't recall this game at all. It was a much more advanced version of the first "“ for instance, after selecting an occupation for your main player, you could spend extra points to give them extra skills such as botany or medicine. And there were many more occupations to choose from "“ in the original, the options are few: banker, farmer or carpenter. The updated version had more than 20 careers to choose from, including journalist. Call me crazy, but I feel like writing skills aren't going to really come in handy when your oxen fall sick or you bust a wheel on your Conestoga. The 1996 version also allowed players to select from various skill levels and starting towns.

numbers6. MECC was behind some of the other fascinating classroom computer games of the "˜80s. You might remember Odell Lake, Number Munchers, Lemonade Stand, Spellevator and Storybook Weaver.
7. When someone from your party died, you could make a custom epitaph for them. You might remember that sometimes you would see someone else's tombstone while on your travels, specifically someone named "Andy" whose epitaph read, "Here lies andy; peperony and chease." What?! The story is that a kid named Andy was particularly amused by those Tombstone pizza commercials that growled, "What do you want on your Tombstone?" The spelling-challenged Andy answered, appropriately, "peperony and chease." So how did it get on your copy? Well, his game was saved on a disk that ended up being a disk that was very popularly pirated later on. So there you go.

8. Assuming you didn't die, right away, the landmarks you would hit on your journey included Fort Kearney, Independence Rock, Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, South Pass, and the Columbia River.

9. Your score at the end of the game is determined by a lot of things "“ your profession, how many members of your party made it all the way through, the health of the remaining members, the time you made it in, the supplies you have left and how much leftover money you have. The world record right now is apparently 53,350 points by Craig Ian Weibman.

grave10. My personal favorite strategy was to give the least amount of supplies humanly possible, set off for the Trail so we would be traveling in the dead of winter, and set the pace to "grueling." Only the strong survive"¦ which apparently doesn't include me.

And because I love to help you guys procrastinate when you should be working or studying or doing something productive, here you go "“ you can now play Oregon Trail for free on Virtual Apple. If you haven't played it in years, I highly recommend clicking the link "“ the feeling of glee you will get when you see the terrible graphics and the delight you will feel when the first member of your party dies from dysentery is SO WORTH IT. Good luck, pioneers, and be sure to share your Oregon Trail nostalgia in the comments.

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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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