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Month in Review: August's Most Popular Stories

Numbers-wise, August was our best month ever. Remember when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' home run record? Our August stats were like that, except if instead of hitting 70 home runs, McGwire had started a website and racked up 22,000,000 pageviews. Thanks to all 7-million-plus of you who stopped by. Here's a look back at some of the stories that helped attract an audience slightly larger than the population of Holland.

1. Symbolism & the $1 Bill
by Ethan Trex

Crack open your wallet, pull out everyone's favorite portrait of George Washington, and get ready to learn about some odd symbolism that probably seemed perfectly normal in the 18th century.

2. Why is 10:10 the Default Setting for Clocks & Watches?
by Matt Soniak

lacoste-watch

A reader wrote in to ask why clocks and watches are always set at (roughly) 10:10 in the store. Here's the explanation...

3. Why Do Shells Sound Like the Ocean?
by Matt Soniak

iStock_000007682030XSmall-shell

No matter what your mom or dad or grandparents told you, and no matter how much it may sound like the rolling waves, it's not actually the ocean you're hearing. Matt Soniak explains.

4. Get Rich Quick: 6 People Who Accidentally Found a Fortune
by Rob Lammle

pollock

Here are six stories of people who found a fortune when—and where—they least expected it. This will get you fired up to hit up some garage sales...

5. Unsettling Old Photos of the "Living" Dead
by Ransom Riggs

Fireman face

Ransom Riggs recently stumbled upon a sub-genre of the Victorian mourning portrait in which photographers clamp and pose the dearly departed in such a way that they look fully awake — usually standing up, eyes either held open by some unknown mechanism (shudder) or with pupils painted over closed eyes, to very, very creepy effect.

6. 5 Things You Don't Know About IKEA (But Should!)
by Mac Carey

IKEA

It's estimated that 10% of living Europeans were conceived on an IKEA-produced bed. It's time you learned a little more about the company and its continuing quest to install flat pack, streamlined fixtures across the seven continents.

7. 31 Unbelievable High School Mascots
by Jason English

mascot0

The Hoboes? The Sugar Beeters? The Awesome Blossoms? Can you top these 31 amazing mascots?

8. The White House Gift Guide: 13 Unique Presidential Gifts
by Scott Allen

truman-bowling

Here's a look back at some unique presidential gifts, from a bowling alley (Truman) to a lemon carved to look like a pig (Hayes).

9. Revisiting 8 Sesame Street Rumors
by Joe Hennes

SometimesFood

Are Bert & Ernie lovers? Is Cookie Monster becoming "˜Veggie Monster'? Here's a look at a few nagging Sesame Street rumors and whether there's any truth behind them.

10. 10 People Who Made a Fortune During the Depression
by Greg Sabin

ruth-30s

Even during our country's worst economic downturn, some folks still knew how to make a buck—many bucks, in fact.

More August Highlights

Ransom Riggs took us on a few photo tours last month. My favorite was his trip to the Mojave Desert's airplane graveyard.
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In early August we welcomed a new monthly contributor, Bud Shaw of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He introduced himself, then wrote a great piece about memorable sports promotions. Bud's next column should be up next week.
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Ethan Trex's look at bizarre stipulations in wills was a big hit this week on CNN.com.

450rubber-duck

Miss Cellania had another excellent month. Highlights included a round-up of strange things dogs have swallowed, a series of quirky marriage proposals, and a bunch of TV celebrities your parents loved.
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Stacy Conradt already has a lock on the top spot in September's Most Popular list—her August 31st exposé on secret menu items at fast food restaurants has been linked to by Yahoo!, Fark, Sports Illustrated, LifeHacker and more.
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DQ

Stacy also put together a list of companies Warren Buffett owns, from Ginsu Knives to Orange Julius.
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If you're up for a literary pilgrimage, Linda Rodriguez has some ideas.
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Thanks to Kara Kovalchik, next time you're playing Trivial Pursuit, you can wow/distract/annoy your competitors with some fun facts about the game's origin.
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You probably know about Gary Powers' role in escalating the Cold War. But how'd he get out of Soviet prison? And whatever happened to him? Eric Johnson brought us up to speed.
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David Israel told us about some famous people who used to be cab drivers; Ethan did the same thing with former ad wizards.
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And finally, here's a look back at the history of shaving.

Twitter-0830

We've also had some good times on Twitter. For amazing facts, 140 characters at a time, follow @mental_floss.

Here's to not experiencing a dramatic drop-off in September!
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I'll leave you with the Top 9 t-shirts sold last month in the mental_floss store...

August-Top9

Stop by our store and add one to your t-shirt drawer today.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
gutenberg.org
gutenberg.org

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow
USGS

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

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