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What’s the Purpose of the Dots on a Basketball?

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To reveal just why and how those little speckles made their way to your basketball, we’ll need to take a trip back to the early days of the sport, dabble in a little bit of physics, and swing on over to the leather company which makes those dots possible.

Physics and the Early Anatomy of a Basketball

Ever tried to grab a handful of ice cubes, only to have them all slip out of your hands?

This is a consequence of an absence of friction. When two forces smash together, friction is the force that breaks up, slows down, or otherwise alters that movement. The more points of contact an object has with a surface, the more friction it has. It’s what makes concrete pebbles easy to run on and those traction marks on your snow boots work against the ice to keep you from flip-flopping on your bum.

Without much friction, things get slippery. In the ice cube example, those slippery cubes, with their sleek, non-resistant surfaces, combined with your undoubtedly well-moisturized hands, have few points of contact upon which to create friction. In line with Newton’s First Law of Motion, the ice cubes then freely exercise their right to be objects in motion that stay in motion and, thus, slip out of your hands and scatter all across your kitchen floor.

Such a diminished level of friction is beneficial in some sports. It’s what makes bowling balls glide down the lane and adds fluidity to Sasha Cohen’s figure skating routines. But for basketballs? Friction-less balls would scatter about like so many large, bounce-able marbles.

And that’s exactly what the early basketballs were doing all across the court in 1894. At the time, teams were using soccer balls. The slick surface of the soccer ball, combined with the oil-polished hardwood gym floors, created a slip-and-slide during game time. Players became less concerned about the purpose of the game (making baskets) and more concerned about just trying to hold on to the ball.

Fortunately, James Naismith, the charming, well-mustachioed P.E. teacher who invented the game back in 1891, was not about to let a soccer ball get in the way of his legacy. Naismith called forth his good buddy and sporting goods maker, A.G. Spalding, and the two collaborated on a design for a new ball that would enhance the players’ ability to handle it. They decided that the ball not only had to be larger, but it also needed an added source of friction.

This is where the dots come in.

The dots, combined with a rough, well-treated leather, would create more points of contact with the court and enhance the amount of friction over the ball. Thus, the first pebbled Spalding basketball was born, and the players celebrated: they could dribble the ball and it wouldn’t go flying out of their hands. It was a miracle of innovation, and one that sticks to this day.

The dots today

The dots (or “pebbles” as they’re known in the basketball-making trade) are all over basketballs today, and the Horween Leather Company has been manufacturing the NBA’s speckled leather for over 60 years.

Having started its foray into tanning back in 1905, Horween Leather nudged its way into the sports trade through its founders’ love of football. One of the company’s founders, Arnold Horween Sr., had a strong history with the Harvard football team. Horween got him in touch with George Halas, the founder of the Chicago Bears, who then hooked Horween up with the Chicago-based Wilson football company. From then on, it was football-making destiny.

At the time of Wilson and Horween’s collaboration, Spalding was using an alternate leather tanning company to produce its basketball leather, but when that leather company fell to bankruptcy, Spalding found itself looking for a new source of horsehide. Noting Horween’s reputation for quality NFL products, Spalding made the leap over to Horween. It paid off: Horween stands strong as not only the maker of all NFL and NBA game balls, but also as the only tanning company surviving in all of Chicago.

Horween’s process of making that special NBA-certified leather is no easy bag of chips. It involves inspecting, baiting, pickling, tanning, re-tanning “in tack” (i.e.: adding essential oils to make the leather stickier and easier to grip), drying, and grading all the horsehide leather. At the end of its long journey, the leather is taken to a special press, where dots are embossed to create each individual pebble. Both basketballs and footballs get the exact same pebbling embossment (with the exception of Wilson-brand products, which has its own special mold).

While the extra points of contact provided by those tack-covered pebbles do wonders for a modern basketball, those speckles can’t completely prevent the ball slipping from your hands. When you play basketball, you sweat, and when you sweat, things get slippery, which can cause your high-quality basketball to slip straight out of your hands.

No shame! Even Michael Jordan got sweaty palms. While nothing can 100% insure that you keep your mighty grip on the ball at all times, a little human intervention can better prepare your ball for game play. If you have a fairly new ball, consider breaking it in by playing a few practice games ahead of time. The contact of the ball with a surface, like, say, concrete (a surface ripe with friction-friendly pebbles), creates a more rugged terrain on your ball. The more pebbled your leather, the better the traction. The better the traction, the easier the ball is to handle. The easier the ball is to handle, the more likely you are to win that game of HORSE with your neighbor (depending who your neighbor is).

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

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’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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