The Reason Behind Those Brightly Colored Balls Along Power Lines

If you've ever driven past those colorful balls strung up along a power line, you might have wondered about what purpose they serve—a thought that usually disappears as soon as the balls have faded from your rearview mirror. Though we sort of wish they were rogue holiday decorations local governments forgot to take down, the truth is that they’re actually used for aircraft safety.

According to electric utility company Edison International, the balls are called visibility marker balls (or just marker balls, for short), and they help make power lines more obvious to low-flying aircraft like planes and helicopters. Though you might not have realized it, you usually spot marker balls near mountain passes, deep valleys, major freeway crossings, and airports—all locations where aircraft tend to fly at low altitudes, running the risk of getting tangled up in the hard-to-see cables.

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates these marker balls and details their specifications in the Advisory Circular No. 70/7460-1L [PDF]. The diameter of the balls must be at least 36 inches on wires that cross canyons, lakes, and rivers, but the FAA allows 20-inch spheres on power lines fewer than 50 feet above ground level and within 1500 feet of an airport runway end. They should be spaced evenly at roughly 200-feet intervals along regular wires, and with less space (30- to 50-feet) intervals on wires near runway ends.

If there are fewer than four marker balls on a given wire, they should all be “aviation orange,” the fluorescent hue you probably associate with some communication towers. Otherwise, they should alternate between orange, white, and yellow to provide the highest level of visibility to approaching aircraft.

According to a 1983 article from United Press International, the marker balls first gained popularity in the early 1970s, when Arkansas’s then-governor Winthrop Rockefeller noticed electric wires whiz by as his aircraft started to land and decided something should be done to make them more obvious to pilots. The article also notes that the benefits go beyond aviation—the markers also help geese and boats steer clear of inconspicuous cables.

If you’re wondering by what magic the marker balls get installed on hard-to-reach power lines, it sometimes takes one helicopter and a very plucky technician. Check out the video below from T&D World to see exactly what that looks like. (The especially thrilling bit starts around 2:10.)

Now that one road-related mystery has been solved, find out the function of those black tubes sometimes stretched across the road.

[h/t Edison International]

Why Is Opening an Umbrella Indoors Supposed to Be Bad Luck?

Will this umbrella bring bad luck?
Will this umbrella bring bad luck?
lenta/iStock via Getty Images

If leaving your umbrella open to dry in the corner of your office makes you slightly uneasy, you’re probably not alone. When it comes to alleged harbingers of bad luck, open indoor umbrellas are right up there with broken mirrors and black cats. While the origin of the superstition isn’t exactly proven, there are a few leading theories about how and why it began.

One of them suggests it started around 1200 BCE, when the ancient Egyptian priests and royalty were using umbrellas made of peacock feathers and papyrus to shield them from the sun. According to Reader’s Digest, the superstition might have stemmed from a belief that opening an umbrella indoors—away from the sun’s rays—would anger the sun god, Ra, and generate negative consequences.

Another theory involves a different ancient Egyptian deity: Nut, goddess of the sky. As HowStuffWorks reports, these early umbrellas were crafted to mirror (and honor) the way she protected the Earth, so their shade was considered sacred. If anybody with non-noble blood used one, that person supposedly became a walking, talking beacon of bad luck.

The reason we try to abstain from opening umbrellas indoors today, however, is probably more about avoiding injury than divine wrath. Modern umbrellas gained popularity during the Victorian era with Samuel Fox’s invention of the steel-ribbed Paragon frame, which included a spring mechanism that allowed it to expand quickly—and dangerously.

“A rigidly spoked umbrella, opening suddenly in a small room, could seriously injure an adult or child, or shatter a frangible object,” Charles Panati writes in his book Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. “Thus, the superstition arose as a deterrent to opening umbrellas indoors.”

All things considered, even if opening an umbrella indoors doesn’t necessarily make for bad luck, getting poked in the eye by one can certainly make for a bad day.

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How IKEA Comes Up With Its Product Names

Original IKEA paper shopping bag.
Original IKEA paper shopping bag.
monticelllo/iStock via Getty Images

There is more to IKEA’s product naming system than non-Swedish people might think. Swedophones are familiar with the furniture store’s oddly specific conventions, but for most of us, Malm is just a line of bedroom furniture. IKEA’s product lines are named according to a set of guidelines from which the company rarely deviates.

According to Quartz, the company's product naming process is the result of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad's struggle with dyslexia. Kamprad found that nouns helped him remember and visualize products better than using code numbers, so he created a series of unusual naming conventions that the company still uses today.

A bookcase, for instance, is probably always going to be named after a profession, if it doesn’t have a boy’s name like Billy. Rugs tend to be named after cities in Denmark and Sweden, while outdoor furniture is named after islands in Scandinavia, like Kuggö, an outdoor umbrella named after an island about 125 miles west of Helsinki. Expedit, the beloved, discontinued shelving unit, means “salesclerk,” while its replacement, Kallax, is named after a town in northern Sweden. Curtains are named for mathematical terms.

Some of the other products have more descriptive names. Lack, IKEA's shiny living room furniture line, means “lacquer.” Sockerkaka, a bakeware line, means “sponge cake.” Bathroom products are named after rivers and lakes.

Some of the translations serve as little corporate jokes. The name of the toy line Duktig means “clever.” Storsint, a wine glass series, is the word for “magnanimous.”

Here’s Quartz’s list of IKEA taxonomy:

  • Bathroom articles = Names of Swedish lakes and bodies of water
  • Bed textiles = Flowers and plants
  • Beds, wardrobes, hall furniture = Norwegian place names
  • Bookcases = Professions, Scandinavian boy’s names
  • Bowls, vases, candles and candle holders = Swedish place names, adjectives, spices, herbs, fruits and berries
  • Boxes, wall decoration, pictures and frames, clocks = Swedish slang expressions, Swedish place names
  • Children’s products = Mammals, birds, adjectives
  • Desks, chairs and swivel chairs = Scandinavian boy’s names
  • Fabrics, curtains = Scandinavian girl’s names
  • Garden furniture = Scandinavian islands
  • Kitchen accessories = Fish, mushrooms and adjectives
  • Lighting = Units of measurement, seasons, months, days, shipping and nautical terms, Swedish place names
  • Rugs = Danish place names
  • Sofas, armchairs, chairs and dining tables = Swedish place names

Sadly, if a Swedish name sounds too much like a dirty word in another language, the product name will be changed in that country. Which is why you can’t buy a bench called Fartfull in an English-speaking country. At least, not anymore.

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