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Why Are So Many Blackboards Green?

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Though the term blackboard has a color right there in its name, most of them aren’t actually black. While we still use the term more or less interchangeably with chalkboards, blackboards tend to be green. Why the difference? Why call a surface a blackboard if it's green?

Because 200 years ago, blackboards were black. According to author Lewis Buzbee’s Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom, large boards of connected slates that teachers could write on for the whole class to see didn’t come around until the early 1800s, and the name blackboard wasn’t used until 1815. They were made with slate, or in rural areas, they were often just wooden boards painted dark with egg whites mixed with the remains of charred potatoes. Later, they were also made of wood darkened with a commercially made porcelain-based ink. They were, true to their name, black.

And the relatively affordable, ubiquitous technology was a huge success, changing education forever. By the mid-19th century, even the most rural schools had a blackboard.

As an 1841 teaching manual, The Blackboard in the Primary School, put it: “The inventor or introducer of the black-board system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors of mankind.”

In the 20th century, blackboards began to look a little different, though the idea was the same. In the 1930s, manufacturers began to make chalkboards using a green, porcelain enameled paint on a steel base. By the 1960s, the green chalkboard trend was in full swing. Teachers had discovered that a different colored paint was a lot more comfortable to stare at all day, because green porcelain paint cut down on glare. By and large, many blackboards were slowly replaced by their green brethren. (Apparently, greenboards wasn’t quite as catchy of a name, though, so the term blackboard stuck.)

But today, many school children might not be familiar with either blackboards or "greenboards." In the 1990s, schools began converting their classrooms to whiteboards, which produce less dust (and eliminate that terrible screeching noise). According to The Atlantic, at the turn of the millennium, whiteboards were outselling chalkboards by a 4-to-1 ratio.

You can still find the occasional blackboard in a classroom, though—even if it’s just decorative. And some schools are rediscovering blackboards, literally. In the summer of 2015, construction workers renovating an Oklahoma school for smart whiteboards found two historic slate blackboards that still bore drawings from almost 100 years ago.

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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.

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What Causes Sinkholes?
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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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