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How Does the FCC Find Naughty Language?

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It was a banner weekend for F-bombs. In Boston last Saturday, Red Sox designated hitter David “Big Papi” Ortiz dropped one into a pre-game speech, saying “This is our f***ing city. And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”

Then, on Sunday, A.J. Clemente spent his first and last day as a weekend anchor on KFYR, Bismarck, North Dakota’s NBC affiliate. Clemente, not realizing his mic was on, let loose a “f***ing s***” just as his co-host went to introduce him. He was fired on Monday.

Since the passage of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, such violations of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decency standards normally mean a fine of $325,000. The FCC has apparently decided to let Ortiz slide, though. Chairman Julius Genachowski took to the Commission’s Twitter account to say:

There’s no word yet on whether there will be a fine for Clemente’s language. The incidents got us wondering, though: How does the FCC keep tabs on radio and broadcast TV programming for the obscene, indecent and/or profane material that it's tasked with policing?

As much as one might want to imagine a small army of government agents in a bunker somewhere monitoring every TV and radio station in the country around the clock, the FCC admits that they cannot and do not monitor particular programs, performers or stations. Instead they rely on everyday citizens to narc on broadcasters and bring objectionable material to their attention in the form of official complaints. They received 1883 of these in the first three quarters of 2012, the latest numbers available. As these complaints come in, the FCC reviews them to figure out if a violation has actually occurred. If one has, FCC staff investigates and may issue a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) to notify the broadcaster of the violation and then a Forfeiture Order, or fine.

The FCC’s quick forgiveness of Ortiz may be less “let’s give Boston a break, they had a rough week,” and more of a sign of things to come. Earlier this month, the Commission asked for public comment on whether it “should make changes to its current broadcast indecency policies or maintain them as they are.” Specifically, they’re wondering how we’d all feel about them focusing on egregious (i.e., deliberate and repetitive) violations, and being more lenient on isolated incidents.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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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What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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