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How Accurate Are Punxsutawney Phil's Forecasts?

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This morning at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, weather-predicting groundhog Phil saw his shadow, which means he's calling for six more weeks of winter-like conditions. Don't get too bummed, though—Phil's recent track record isn't that great on the national level.

The tradition started in 1887, and since then, the groundhog chosen to represent Phil has seen his shadow 101 times. There have only been 17 instances when he hasn't seen it. (There are nine years without any record of Phil's prediction).

The National Climatic Data Center tallied Phil's predictions since 1988. They then compared the average national temperatures in February and March for each year with those months' 20th century averages to see how well Punxsutawney Phil performed. Now, it's important to keep in mind the difference between weather and climate here. It is also important to remember that this is a magical groundhog we're talking about.

In 2014, Phil was right on the money. After he saw his shadow, the country endured the 37th coldest February on record (1.6°F below the 20th century average) and the 43rd coldest March (1.0°F below the 20th century average). Compared with his other predictions, however, it seems that Phil got lucky.

Between 1988 and 2013, Phil saw his shadow 17 times. After predicting six more weeks of winter for those years, there were 12 Februarys with above-average temperatures in the U.S. and 13 above-average Marches. Of the eight times he did not see his shadow, which portends an early spring, he fared better—there wound up being four below-average Februarys and one below-average March. (Check out the full table here.)

Phil has predicted 100% correctly in only five of the 26 years the National Climatic Data Center analyzed (1990, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2014). Other than in 2014, he only nailed the years in which he forecasted an early spring. Considering the contiguous United States just experienced its 18th consecutive year with an above-average annual temperature, Phil may be wise to play the numbers and always predict an early spring.

Then again, perhaps we expect too much from a marmot with no access to nationwide climate data.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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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