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Could You Really Cry Someone a River?

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“Don't burn any bridges.” “Put a sock in it.” So many figures of speech evoke actions that, while physically possible, are not always good ideas. Others are harder to pin down. We may unsympathetically tell someone to cry us a river, but could they really do it? That’s what students at the University of Leicester decided to find out. They published their results this month in their school’s Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics.

These days, the words “cry me a river” are common parlance. But unlike many idioms, this one has a clear origin: a songwriter named Arthur Hamilton. Hamilton was working on a new tune in the early 1950s and wanted to evoke a certain vibe (bitter), but he needed the right words.

“I had never heard the phrase,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. "I just liked the combination of words … Instead of 'Eat your heart out' or 'I'll get even with you,' it sounded like a good, smart retort to somebody who had hurt your feelings or broken your heart."

At first, the song seemed destined for failure; no fewer than 38 artists refused to record it. But in 1955, jazz-pop singer Julie London took it on, and it took over the charts. Since then, it’s been covered hundreds of times, and the phrase entered the American vocabulary. "Its general use as a put-down phrase has continued to delight and amaze me," Hamilton said. "Whenever my wife and I are watching a film or TV show, and the phrase is used, we laugh and gently punch each other." 

It must have crossed the pond, too, because two students at UL’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Science decided to put it to the test.

Leah Ashley and Robbie Roe started by identifying the shortest river in the world, in order to give their theoretical weepers the best chance of meeting the minimum tear production requirement. That title belongs to Montana’s Roe River, which is just 201 feet long and discharges between 156 and 193 million gallons of water per day. 

By comparison, the average human tear has a volume of 0.0062 milliliters. Ashley and Roe quickly realized that there is no way a single person could cry even the tiniest river. The entire of population of Earth couldn’t even do it, even if we were all really, really upset at the same time.

What about something a little smaller, like an Olympic-size swimming pool? That’s something we might be able to manage. A regulation pool, the authors write, is 50 x 25 x 2 meters, with a capacity of 2,500,000 liters. If each of the roughly 7.4 billion people on this planet cried 55 tears apiece, we could fill up that pool together, in a weird, sad triumph of international cooperation. 

Cheryl Hurkett, the authors’ instructor, was delighted with their paper. “I am always pleased to see my students engaging so enthusiastically with the subject,” she said in a press statement. “I encourage them to be as creative as possible with their subject choices as long as they can back it up with hard scientific facts, theories, and calculations!"

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

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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