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Why Are We Still Looking for Jimmy Hoffa?

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One of America's most intriguing cold cases heated up this week when a tip from a retired mobster sent FBI and Michigan law enforcement officials wielding shovels and bulldozers to a suburban Detroit field in search of decades-old remains. Two days and no bones later, the only thing unearthed was the fact that the country is still fascinated by the disappearance and alleged murder of former Teamsters president James Riddle “Jimmy” Hoffa nearly 38 years ago.

In American pop culture, a good whodunit is irresistible—and as such, exploring the unsolved mystery of what happened to the notoriously corrupt labor leader with mob ties has become practically a national pastime. Almost four decades, hundreds of FBI agents, zero convictions, dozens of theories, books, one Oscar-nominated film, countless jokes (“Yo momma's so fat, she rolled over and they found Jimmy Hoffa”), and a whole lot of digging later, the as-yet fruitless search for the labor leader's remains has become the stuff of legend.

But why do we keep searching? On Monday, Oakland County, Michigan Sheriff Michael Bouchard said he would like to provide closure for the Hoffa family. "It's long overdue," he said. "It’s been one of those open wounds for a long time." After the FBI called off its investigation on Wednesday, spokesman Simon Shaykhet gave another reason. "It remains an open investigation," he said. "As long as cases remain open, the FBI remains committed to the pursuit of justice."

According to Frankie Bailey, associate professor at the University at Albany's School of Criminal Justice, "[The FBI] isn't obliged to follow up every alleged lead, but if the agency has information from a credible source, it may well feel obliged to try to finally close the case," she told MSN News. "And one would think that after all these years, the FBI would like to solve this mystery. It would be a triumph to finally find Jimmy Hoffa."

During the past four decades, a number of plausible stories have come to light as to who killed this real-life Mr. Boddy, where it happened, and with what sort of weapon. Here are five popular leads that have been investigated since Hoffa's disappearance in 1975.

The Purple Gang. In the field. With the shovel.

This is the most recent lead, provided by former mafia captain and now octogenarian Anthony Zerilli this year. Zerilli, son of reputed Detroit-based Purple Gang leader Joseph Zerilli, told the FBI that Hoffa was clubbed with a shovel and buried under a concrete slab in a field on what was then his cousin's land in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. After two days of excavation, law enforcement officials said they were unable to find anything.

Tony the Greek. Under Giants Stadium. With the Gun.

In 1989, Donald Frankos (a.k.a. Tony the Greek) got the nation's attention when he told Playboy magazine that Hoffa was buried beneath Giants Stadium after a mafia hit squad (of which Frankos claimed to be a part) shot him, dismembered him, froze him, shipped him to Jersey and buried him near the western end zone in East Rutherford—fondly dubbed the “Jimmy Hoffa Memorial End Zone.” The FBI found no evidence that any of Frankos' claims were true, and no remains were unearthed when Giants Stadium was torn down in 2010. Jimmy Hoffa, however, is nonetheless jokingly referred to as the biggest fan of New York football, having “attended” every game since 1975.   

The Hitman. In the Swamp. With the Meat Grinder.

In 1982, Charles Allen—who described himself as a former hitman for the mafia—told members of Congress that Hoffa was murdered on the orders of mob boss Anthony Provenzano, ground up into little bitty pieces, and shipped to Florida, where the remains were tossed into a swamp.

The Irishman. In the house. With the paint.

Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran, a former Teamsters official and friend of Jimmy Hoffa, confessed on his deathbed to killing his old pal on mafia orders (in addition to claiming involvement in the JFK assassination). Law enforcement officials found some blood in the house in which Sheeran claimed to have murdered Hoffa, but it was not Hoffa's blood, and there hasn’t been enough evidence unearthed yet to support the confession. Sheeran said Hoffa had used him as muscle during his Teamsters days to intimidate and assassinate uncooperative union members and rivals. He confessed all this to author Charles Brandt in 2003, who wrote a book about it called I Heard You Paint Houses. That was supposedly the first thing Hoffa ever said to Sheeran, which is code for “I hear you're a contract killer. (And that when you shoot people in the head blood splatters everywhere like paint.)”    

The Iceman. In the car. With the hunting knife.

Richard Kuklinski, another self-described mob hitman, confessed on his deathbed in 2006 to killing Hoffa. And another author, Philip Carlo, catalogued the misadventures in mafia murder in a book called, Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer. Kuklinski said he was paid $40,000 to nab Hoffa from the restaurant parking lot, after which he claims he punched Hoffa’s lights out and stabbed him in the head with a hunting knife. Then, he drove the body to New Jersey and left the car in a scrap metal yard. Which, according to Kuklinski, probably means the body of Jimmy Hoffa could actually be in the body of your car.

There are many more theories about what happened to Hoffa, including the possibility that he was disintegrated in a fat-rendering plant, or buried under a horse farm, a suburban driveway or beneath General Motors HQ in Detroit. What we do know for sure is that the search for the truth continues on.

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Who Started Casual Fridays?
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For employees at the mercy of an office thermostat, Casual Fridays provide some much-needed relief during frigid winters and the scorching months of summer. Though many offices are beginning to loosen their dress codes permanently, plenty of employees still cling to this one day a week when wearing shorts won't raise any eyebrows and that T-shirt won't result in an email from HR. But Casual Friday didn't begin just as a cure for discomfort in the workplace; there was also money to be made. 

In the 1960s, Bill Foster, president of The Hawaiian Fashion Guild, plotted to find a way to sell more of the colorfully designed Aloha shirts to their residents with the launch of "Operation Liberation," which gave two shirts to every member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and the Hawaii Senate. The purpose of this campaign was to persuade the politicians to allow government workers to wear the lightweight shirts not only to beat the heat in the summer months, but also to support the state’s garment industry. The custom took off in 1966 and was given a familiar name, "Aloha Friday."

Technology giant Hewlett-Packard claims to have sparked the spread of casual wear in the workplace around the same time in the San Francisco Bay area. Called "Blue Sky Days," this Friday custom wasn't just limited to clothing: HP's founders—Bill Hewlett and David Packard—wanted people to take these days to think of more creative ideas and initiatives outside of their normal routine. This idea soon caught on throughout Silicon Valley and, eventually, into other industries.

However, the spread of this casual trend on the mainland resulted in haphazard, sometimes sloppy attire in the workplace. To help clarify the issue, and to promote his own brand, Rick Miller of Dockers stepped in with an ingenious marketing plan. In 1992, he sent an eight-page “Guide To Casual Business Wear” to approximately 25,000 human resource managers to distribute to their employees. This kickstarted the Dockers brand by popularizing the khaki pant and redefining what is acceptable attire in the workplace.

Now, many nations adopt a Casual Friday approach for similar reasons. In 2005, Japan implemented a Cool Biz policy that granted a summer dress code during hot weather months, in exchange for a more moderate temperature in office buildings. This meant offices were saving energy by keeping their temperature at no less than 82.4°F, but workers could breathe a bit easier in business casual tops and sneakers.

Blame the fashion industry, the unbearable heat, or simply an evolving cultural attitude. The likes of Bill Foster’s Aloha Friday and Rick Miller’s “Guide To Casual Business Wear” gave employees permission to dress for comfort on the job—for at least one coveted day of the week.

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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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

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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