From Talking Birds to Ghost Cities: This Week's Curios

Every day of the year, CEO Justin Kitch writes a quirky fact, known as the Daily Curio, intended to tickle the brains of lifelong learners everywhere. This is a weekly digest.

Last week's Curios covered unconditional basic income, new Prince music, and the biggest city in California you've never heard of.

Curio No. 1102 | Learning to speak honeyguide
Meet the honeyguide, an African wild bird the size of a sparrow that lives in sub-Saharan Africa. Also known as indicator birds, honeyguides may be the only undomesticated animals in the world that survive by communicating with humans. Honeyguides live on the wax and larvae of abandoned beehives. The problem is they don't like bees, or their stings. So they have developed a symbiotic relationship with human "honey hunters" from the indigenous Yao tribe. The Yao hunters smoke out the bees, retrieve the honey, and then leave the abandoned hive for the honeyguides to devour. Generations of Yao honey hunters have passed down a specific percussive call that sounds like "brrr-hm." This warns honeyguides that they are starting a hunt. Honeyguides make specific calls to let the humans know they are there to help, and then lead them to active beehives in the vicinity. The humans get their honey--in the process removing the bees--and the honeyguides get dinner... keep reading.

Curio No. 1101 | Free income for all
In Switzerland, there was almost such a thing as a free lunch. Well, not almost. But 1/4 of the Swiss population voted for a referendum to legalize a US$2,500 monthly unconditional basic income, or UBI, for all citizens. Supporters of UBI believe a government paycheck for everybody could reduce bureaucracy and income inequality. Despite the loss, just getting the referendum to a vote was a huge win for basic income believers around the world. UBI has been around since the Renaissance, with famous proponents including Thomas Paine, Milton Friedman, and Charles Murray. But the idea is gaining new steam now, with rising fears that technological advancement is outmoding many jobs and magnifying income disparity. Detractors, though, say UBI can never be economically feasible. To provide even a poverty-level salary for every adult in the US would cost almost US$4 trillion annually... keep reading.

Curio No. 1100 | Prince's treasures
32 years ago today, Prince's film Purple Rain was released to the world. Minneapolis was never the same. Prince would go on to release three more feature films, along with 33 more albums before his tragic death. Luckily, it looks like there's enough new Prince music to last several lifetimes. That's according to the trustees of the artist's estate. They have confirmed the existence of a not-so-secret bank vault at Prince's Paisley Park mansion with floor-to-ceiling shelves containing never-released recordings. Prince was the only person who knew the combination to the safe, forcing the trustees to drill it open to gain access. Here's a partial list of what we can look forward to in the coming years: collaborations with Miles Davis and James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker; a Jimi Hendrix-inspired live record... keep reading.

Curio No. 1099 | Those poor lab mice
Labs across the world use millions of animals in experiments each year. Most of them are mice. By some estimates, mice--and their bigger cousins, rats--make up 95% of all lab animals. How did mice become laboratory fodder? They are cheap, small, easy to care for, reproduce quickly. Plus they have short lifespans, making it easier to see the effects of a stimulus over multiple generations. Most importantly, mice and humans share over 95% of each other's genome. In theory that means they should be good predictors for how something will affect a human subject. But several prominent cases have shown the flaws in using mice to predict reactions in humans. For example, remember when people thought saccharin was carcinogenic? That's because it was--in mice... keep reading.

Curio No. 1098 | A sticky shampoo problem
In Curio #663 we learned about LiquiGlide--a coating for the insides of toothpaste tubes and ketchup bottles that is so slippery contents glide right out. It also has potential industrial applications such as oil pipelines and chemical storage tanks. The only problem is that LiquiGlide, a superhydrophobic or water-repelling coating, doesn't adhere well to polypropylene. That's the plastic used in shampoo bottles. Unfortunately, shampoo contains clingy surfactants. Surfactants are organic molecules that extract oils from our hair, but also are attracted to the plastic molecules of the bottle. This creates a sticky problem: millions of shampoo bottles are thrown out each year with lots of usable shampoo stuck in the bottom. Cue scientists from Ohio State University. They have just released a paper they hope solves this whole gooey mess, using a superoleophobic or oil-repelling surface.... keep reading.

Curio No. 1097 | You've read this before
Have you heard this story before? They say there are as many theories of fiction writing as there are teachers of fiction writing. Like Joseph Campbell's theory that all stories follow a single character arc called the "hero's journey." Or Georges Polti, who claimed 36 "dramatic situations" made up all stories. Now computer scientists are getting in on the fun. Artificial intelligence specialists fed 2,000 works of fiction into a machine learning program and deduced that all stories follow six arcs. First, there are "rags to riches" stories, like Great Expectations. These accounted for 20% of the stories. Second most prevalent are tragedies like Romeo and Juliet. Slightly less popular but still prominent are so-called "man in a hole" stories. That's where the protagonist falls then rises again. Fourth are "Icarus" stories, where the protagonist rises only to fall. Fifth are "Cinderella" stories, which rise then fall then rise. And sixth are "Oedipus" stories, which fall then rise then fall... keep reading.

Curio No. 1096 | Desert-ed city
Location, location, location. Nathan Mendelsohn apparently wasn't aware of this real estate mantra when he bought 82,000 acres in the Mojave desert in 1958. Mendelsohn's plan was to build a desert mecca, called "California City," to rival nearby Los Angeles and Palm Springs. But whereas it took centuries for those towns to develop into thriving cities, Mendelsohn decided to build out his town before it had any inhabitants. Bad move. Today, California City is the third largest city in California by area but has a population of less than 15,000. Satellite photos of the miles of roads that were supposed to be lined with houses and businesses instead look like abstract sand etchings (see photo below). At first, Mendelsohn had success attracting potential buyers. Most bought inexpensive lots without visiting the town. A few actually settled there to escape the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Within a few years, though, it became clear most of the speculators had no intention of moving in... keep reading.

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