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Why Do Late-Night Talk Shows Start at 11:35 p.m.?

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Press the menu button on your cable remote and you’ll see the schedule lineup in a neat grid. Almost all TV shows start on the hour or half-hour, and this has been the case since the early days of television—with one notable exception: late-night talk shows on the big broadcast networks. Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel all begin at 11:35 p.m. eastern time, and the shows that follow them also begin a few minutes after the half-hour. These are virtually the only shows on American television that begin at a time not ending with a zero. How did late-night shows get these irregular time slots?

You can partially blame Saddam Hussein.

At the start of the 1990s, affiliates “had been clamoring … to grab more time away from the networks,” Bill Carter—a former TV writer for The New York Times and author of The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night and The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy—tells mental_floss via email.

Local TV stations, which contract for programming from national networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC, wanted more airtime for their newscasts. Carter says there was special pressure on NBC, because they demanded more time from their local stations during late-night hours for national broadcasts. To be an NBC affiliate at that time meant dedicating two hours every weeknight to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman. While CBS, ABC, and Fox had some programming after 11 p.m., there was no block of late-night TV as permanent and unshakable as NBC’s.

“Some NBC stations were pushing the idea of moving The Tonight Show [to midnight],” Carter says, “which might have killed the franchise.”

When the first Gulf War began in the summer of 1990, the affiliates intensified their campaign for more news time, insisting they had to cover the conflict. NBC acquiesced by temporarily moving the start of its late-night block from 11:30 p.m. to 11:35 p.m. But once the local stations had those five precious minutes, they didn’t want to give them back.

Johnny Carson, who had hosted The Tonight Show for nearly 28 years at that point, was infuriated over the bump. "He understands the TV business and knows you never get that time back," Carter says of Carson's thinking at the time. "He fears the next move will be an 11:45 p.m. start and then midnight." But since Carson had been planning to retire in a couple of years, "he let it happen without real protest."

Once NBC gave its affiliates an extra five minutes for newscasts, the other networks followed suit. CBS didn’t want to seem like it was offering its affiliates a rawer deal, so when David Letterman began his Late Show on the network in 1993, CBS slotted the program at 11:35 p.m. ABC also slid its news show Nightline to 11:35 p.m. and moved Jimmy Kimmel Live! to that time slot in 2013.

A standard was set for the big networks, and it helped broaden the late-night landscape. "This open[ed] an opportunity for cable, which starts its late night at 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.," Carter says, "creating the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert phenomenon, as well as [Cartoon Network's] Adult Swim." Starting in the early 2000s, those cable lineups managed to chip away at the big networks' once-unassailable ratings leads.

So, ultimately, Johnny Carson had the last laugh.

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Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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 Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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