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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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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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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Big Questions
What Could the Repeal of Net Neutrality Mean for Internet Users?
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What could the repeal of net neutrality mean for the average American internet user?

Zouhair Belkoura:

The imminent repeal of net neutrality could have implications for Americans beyond the Internet’s stratification, increased costs to consumers, and hindered access to content for all. Net neutrality’s repeal is a threat to the Internet’s democracy—the greatest information equalizer of our time.

With net neutrality’s repeal, ISPs could be selective about the content and pricing packages they make available. Portugal is a good example of what a country looks like without net neutrality

What people may not realize is that a repeal of net neutrality would also give ISPs the ability to throttle people’s Internet traffic. Customers won’t likely have visibility into what traffic is being throttled, and it could substantially slow down people’s Internet connections.

What happens when this type of friction is introduced to the system? The Internet—the greatest collective trove of information in the world—could gradually be starved. People who experience slower Internet speeds may get frustrated and stop seeking out their favorite sites. People may also lose the ability to make choices about the content they want to see and the knowledge they seek.

Inflated pricing, less access to knowledge, and slower connections aren’t the only impact a net neutrality repeal might have. People’s personal privacy and corporations’ security may suffer, too. Many people use virtual private networks to protect their privacy. VPNs keep people’s Internet browsing activities invisible to their ISPs and others who may track them. They also help them obscure their location and encrypt online transactions to keep personal data secure. When people have the privacy that VPNs afford, they can access information freely without worrying about being watched, judged, or having their browsing activity bought and sold by third-party advertisers.

Virtual private networks are also a vital tool for businesses that want to keep their company data private and secure. Employees are often required by their employers to connect to a VPN whenever they are offsite and working remotely.

Even the best VPNs can slow down individuals' Internet connections, because they create an encrypted tunnel to protect and secure personal data. If people want to protect their personal privacy or company’s security with a VPN [they] also must contend with ISP throttling; it’s conceivable that net neutrality’s repeal could undermine people’s freedom to protect their online safety. It could also render the protection a VPN offers to individuals and companies obsolete.

Speed has always been a defining characteristic of the Internet’s accessibility and its power. Net neutrality’s repeal promises to subvert this trait. It would compromise both people's and companies’ ability to secure their personal data and keep their browsing and purchasing activities private. When people don’t have privacy, they can’t feel safe. When they don’t feel safe, they can’t live freely. That’s not a world anyone, let alone Americans, want to live in.

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

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