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Do Loose Lips Really Sink Ships?

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In the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, I keep hearing people roll out the old World War Two phrase “loose lips sink ships.” How literally, I wonder, are we supposed to take that? Have intelligence leaks ever led directly to the loss of a U.S. naval vessel before?

Maybe. Over the course of our naval history, there have been security breaches. At the same time, there have been ships and boats and lives lost. Most of the time, it’s very hard to draw a straight line from an instance of the former to one of the latter. There’s often correlation, but not clear causation. In one of these cases, the lips that might have sunk the ships were attached to a congressman.

During WWII, concerns about national security were probably higher than ever before in U.S. history, and secrecy was paramount to security and the war effort. Civilians were reminded of this through the “loose lips” posters, and many soldiers serving overseas were issued pamphlets that reminded them that…

Silence means security — If violation of protective measures is serious within written communications it is disastrous in conversations. Protect your conversation as you do your letters, and be even more careful. A harmful letter can be nullified by censorship; loose talk is direct delivery to the enemy.

If you come home during war your lips must remain sealed and your written hand must be guided by self-imposed censorship. This takes guts. Have you got them or do you want your buddies and your country to pay the price for your showing off? You've faced the battle front; it’s little enough to ask you to face this "home front."

If only someone had given a copy of that to Andrew J. May. The Kentucky democrat served in the House of Representatives from 1931 to 1947 and chaired the House Military Affairs Committee during the war. During the summer of 1943, May and other House members visited sites in the Pacific Theater and received briefings on operations and intelligence. Upon his return home, May gave a press conference and shared a little too much of what he learned.

Americans didn’t have to worry about the safety of their submarines, he explained, because the Navy had found that the Japanese were setting their depth charges—a type of anti-submarine explosive—to detonate at shallow enough depths that the subs could avoid them. May’s comments were reprinted in various newspapers, including ones in Hawaii and other Pacific coastal areas where subs were operating.

Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, commander of the U.S. submarine fleet in the Pacific, blamed May’s leak for leading to improved Japanese tactics and American casualties. “I hear Congressman May said the [Japanese] depth charges are not set deep enough,” Lockwood wrote in a letter to another officer. “He would be pleased to know [they] set 'em deeper now." Lockwood estimated that May’s “indiscretion” directly led to the loss of ten subs and 800 seamen.

Lockwood’s accusations and estimates might not be water-tight, though. The Navy’s “Enemy Anti-Submarine Measures” report, a summary of the Pacific fleet’s experience with Japanese anti-sub weapons, makes no mention of a change in depth charge deployment after May’s leak, and says that the Japanese were never able to figure out the full depth capabilities of American subs. Even if the depth charges were set lower, the Japanese still didn’t know how low they had to go before the subs couldn’t maneuver below them. The Naval History Division’s report of submarine losses in the war, meanwhile, does mention the use of depth charges in the attacks leading to the loss of ten subs, but the reports also couldn’t conclude the exact reasons for the loss of each of those subs. The events surrounding some losses were only learned years after the war from enemy reports or other second-hand information, and may not be entirely accurate or definitive.

Representative May, meanwhile, suffered no consequences for his big mouth except some bad press. He was later caught up in scandal, though, and convicted of accepting bribes and using his position to secure contracts and favors for a munitions company. He served nine months in prison and was pardoned by President Truman, but his political career was sunk.

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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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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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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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