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Why Are There Gideon Bibles in Hotel Rooms?

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Because the Gideons put them there! The Gideon Bible is not some special version or translation of the Bible that hotels really like (the books are usually plain old King James Versions); they're named for the group that distributes them.

Gideons International got its start in 1898, when two traveling businessmen, John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill, arrived at the crowded Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin, for the night.

The two had never met, but there was only one double room left, so they decided to share it. The men got to talking and found they shared a common faith and had both toyed with the idea of creating an evangelical association for Christian businessmen.

They decided to give it a shot together. They called a meeting the following year for men who were interested in joining together for “mutual recognition, personal evangelism, and united service for the Lord.” Only one other person showed up to that meeting—William J. Knights, who suggested they name their organization after Gideon, an Old Testament judge who led a small band of men to defeat a much larger army.

As the group expanded in its first few years, most of the new members were men who frequently traveled for work and spent many of their nights in hotel rooms. They wondered how they might be more effective witnesses for Christ on the road, and hit upon the idea of providing Bibles to hotels. They could be used not only by the Gideons’ members as they traveled around the country, but also borrowed by other guests in need of them. They started with the Superior Hotel in Superior, Montana, then set out to put a Bible in every hotel room in America. Since 1908, they’ve distributed more than 1.7 billion Bibles, expanding beyond the U.S. to more than 190 other countries.

Passing Them Out

The Gideons don’t go room to room themselves, slipping the books in nightstands like Bible elves. When a hotel opens, local Gideons members will present a Bible to the hotel's general manager in a small ceremony and then give enough books for each room and some extras to the housekeeping staff for distribution. In addition to hotel rooms, the Gideons also give Bibles to military bases, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and to students on college campuses.

Each Bible handed out is free of charge, and the project is funded entirely by donations to the group. The Gideons will also replace any books that go missing or get worn out, and the group says that the books have a six-year life expectancy, on average. They don’t get bent out of shape when people ignore the “thou shalt not steal” rule when it comes to the Bibles, either. They’d rather you just take the book if you need it that badly.

Based on the success of the Gideons’ Bible project -- the group’s own statistics claim 25% of the people who check into a hotel room will read the Bible placed there -- other religious groups have begun distributing their own free literature to hotels. The Marriott hotel chain, founded by a Mormon, places the The Book of Mormon in many of its rooms, and many hotels also offer Buddhist, Hindu, Christian Scientist or Scientologist books along with the standard Gideon Bible.

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Big Questions
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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Big Questions
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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