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Harry How, Getty Images
Harry How, Getty Images

Why Won't Team USA Dip the Flag at the Opening Ceremonies?

Harry How, Getty Images
Harry How, Getty Images

For the last 110 years, Olympic spirit has come with an asterisk for the United States, as we're the only country that refuses to dip its flag when passing the host country during the Opening Ceremonies.

Let's back up: During the Opening Ceremonies, every nation’s team parades in behind one member who holds the country’s flag. In the stands sit the governing officials of the host country. As the team marches past this section, the flag bearer lowers the flag as a sign of respect. Every country does the dip, except for the United States. The small move of respect has been a thorn in the sides of host countries since the U.S. first snubbed the tradition at the 1908 London Games.

The story goes that the 1908 U.S. flag bearer, shotputter Ralph Rose, kept the flag erect as an act of nationalism, proclaiming, "This flag dips to no earthly king.” However, according to Penn State professor Mark Dyreson, that story may not be exactly true. In 2012, Dyreson—who studies the Olympics—told the Los Angeles Times that America's refusal to participate in the flag-dipping tradition is a bit more complicated.

Rather than being a matter of good old American pride, Dyreson said that the Irish-American athlete’s actions were more about disdain for the British. In that era, Irish athletes riled at competing under the Union Jack. And there's no hard evidence the "no earthly king" quip was ever even muttered.

Until 1936, the practice to dip or not to dip flip-flopped. King Gustav V received a dipped flag in the 1912 Games, but 1936 was an easy call: The U.S. nearly didn’t participate in the Berlin Summer Olympics, let alone dip a flag in respect to Adolf Hitler. The decision to not dip was announced beforehand, and the U.S. was joined in protest by Bulgaria, Iceland, and India, according to contemporary media reports. The move wasn't even the athlete's decision—it was a top-down call from the United States Olympic Committee and, as traditions often begin, it just stuck. (In the 1940s, the tradition was formalized in the flag code, which reads “the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing.”)

So when we don't dip our flag, it's not pride. It's not hubris. It's not nationalism. It's just a big middle finger to Hitler.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
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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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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iStock

When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

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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