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Wikimedia Commons

How Does One Actually Read Tea Leaves?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Sportswriters are often maligned for their over-reliance on clichés (amongst other things; Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote that the only things a sports reporter needs are "a Roget's Thesaurus, in order to avoid using the same verbs and adjectives twice in the same paragraph," and "a blind willingness to believe anything you're told"). But, to be fair, they have to cover events that are repetitive by design and resistant to new terminology.

As anyone who has been following NBA free agency can tell you, the clichés don't stop once the games are over. This period — which has centered around yet another LeBron James decision — has turned sportswriters into amateur fortune tellers, desperately citing "anonymous sources" to buttress their guesswork.

One term has come up so often, we received an inquiry from a reader about the phrase's origins. "Reading the tea leaves" is a common cliché that has become a crutch for anyone tasked with writing about NBA free agency.

"Reading the tea leaves" comes from tasseography, which is the practice of telling someone's fortune by "reading" a splotched or smeared substance. In the middle ages, self-proclaimed clairvoyants would use melted wax or molten metals for the process, but after the tea trade exploded in the 17th century, these leaves from the Far East became the magic material of choice for this Western tradition (coffee is also popular).

The process varies by psychic, but it usually goes something like this: Un-strained tea is poured into a cup or container. The subject then drinks or dumps the liquid out. What remains is a bunch of soggy tea stuck to the sides and bottom of the cup, which is then interpreted by the reader as either a series of symbols or the outlines of pertinent imagery. See an acorn? That could mean you have good health in your future. A sword? You may be thrust into an argument soon. A 90-foot-tall talking water buffalo? You weren't drinking normal tea, my friend.

LeBron James has chosen to go back to Cleveland, but the smudge at the bottom of our cup looks kind of like a thimble — that means trouble at home. Get ready to break the Earl Grey out again in a couple of years; James's contract is only for two seasons.

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

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 Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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