#2. Corks in Wine Bottles
As long as people have been finding ways to get drunk off stuff, we've needed ways to close up containers, so we can get drunk again later. As bottles became widely used for wine and other products, people found that a soft wood called cork was the best thing to cram into them to avoid taking a swig of vinegar later.
That was a very, very long time ago. As with many things, technology evolved, and today there are plenty of cheaper, just-as-good ways to close up a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.
What you do after you open it is your own damn business.
Why It's Inefficient:
What, you mean there are problems with plugging up a bottle with a hunk of soggy wood?
Wine snobs will tell you that the reason corks are better than screw-tops or plastic stoppers is that they let a tiny trace of oxygen through to help the aging process. This is fine, except that 95 percent of wine purchased in the U.S. is consumed within the first year, and 75 percent within the first three days. At these rates, we could be using masking tape to seal bottles. According to wine expert Kevin Zraly, only 1 percent of the bottles produced currently in the world are even meant to be aged beyond five years, the period synthetic stoppers are designed for.
Hell, some don't even make it out of the winery and need no stoppers at all.
Synthetic corks are even starting to be tested for their rate of air permeation, and companies have been pouring money into developing closures that control the amount of oxygen that's allowed through them. It won't be long until an airtight cyberseal sings lullabies to your Merlot and gives it a squirt of two molecules of oxygen every year.
Also, cork incubates a fungus called "cork taint." Mold, chlorine and phenols can react in natural cork, creating the fungus that produces a taste in the wine that's been described as varying between "wet dog" and "grapes barfed in my mouth." And it affects anywhere from 1 to 11 percent of wines.
Of course, some people just don't care about that sort of thing.
Cork is also expensive, partly because it takes more than 40 years for an oak tree to mature enough to produce good natural cork, which usually has to be harvested by hand (and the first harvest can't be used for wine corks). Sure, some of the cheapest corks are competitive with synthetic alternatives, but those are the corks most likely to cause taint and break into floaty pieces in your crappy Riesling. More often, a cork costs 75 cents, or even a few dollars for the high-end ones.
Why We're Stuck With It:
People still associate cork with class and status, and popping a cork out of your 1950 Cabernet Sauvignon is just more impressive than deactivating an iCork developed by Apple. Alternative stoppers aren't new, but even with their cheaper prices and comparable qualities, they've only just begun to infiltrate the world's bottle-stopping industry.
The hillbilly dishrag part, we may have just made up.
#1. The Imperial Measurement System
In the early days, measurement systems were based on body parts, or whatever else was readily available. A foot was a man's foot, an inch was the width of a man's thumb or three end-to-end barleycorns, and a furlong was the distance King John could force a team of oxen to go before they dropped dead in the dirt. But these measures varied from place to place and weren't very well related to each other, so eventually it became clear than a standardized system was needed.
To John Holmes' ancestors, this was considered 16 feet.
The metric system as we know it originated in Europe in the late 1700s and used as its length basis the meter, which was 1/10,000,000th of the distance from the Earth's equator to the North Pole. All other measurements went up or down with prefixes by scales of 10, which was conveniently the number of fingers everybody had. There was really only one major country that didn't want to get involved.
Why It's Inefficient:
There's a kilometer-long list of things the imperial system is bad at. Scaling is random and difficult: A mile is 1,760 yards, a yard is 3 feet, a foot is 12 inches. Even worse is converting between systems, something we wouldn't have to do if there was only one. This occasionally causes disasters in international science: In 1983, a Boeing 767 jet ran out of fuel during an Air Canada flight because workers made an error in converting the amount needed, and in 1999, NASA lost a Mars orbiter because one engineering team used the metric system and another didn't.
Want to measure something really small? Fugeddaboutit. The only imperial measure for really tiny things is the thou, which is 1/120,000th of an inch, and even our nerdy MIT friends had never heard of it. Maybe it's 1/100th of one of King Henry's toenail clippings. Imperial isn't even very good at the stuff it's supposed to do well: The average man's foot is actually 0.8 feet, and anyone measuring things with barleycorns these days is probably autistic.
There's also some evidence that our jalopy measurement system is part of what's making U.S. students bad at math. In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, he suggests that Asian students may have a built-in advantage in the subject because Eastern languages are structured in a way that makes numbers intuitive. Conversely, having a language -- or a measurement system -- that makes numbers clunkier and difficult to convert would have an adverse effect on young children picking them up from the world around them. Foundation and early confidence are everything in math.
Combined, of course, with proper punishment for not learning.
For this to be true, of course, U.S. students would have to be worse internationally at math than they are at other subjects ... and in fact, they are. Two recent studies show U.S. students to be right around average (12th and 15th) of 30-some industrialized nations in reading scores but among the worst (25th and 30th) in math. There are no doubt other factors involved, but a nonintuitive measurement system can't be helping.
Why We're Stuck With It:
Actually, we have started to use metric, in some ways. The imperial system is so clumsy that the U.S. scientific community has already abandoned it for metric, which is much better at measuring anything really big or small, like light wavelengths. Besides the sciency stuff, electricity consumption is measured in kilowatts, data storage is measured in megabytes, and nutrition labels have been in both imperial and metric for quite a while.
And we'll never get tired of the phrase "metric shitload."
But let's be honest: The metric system has not caught on here. Technically, the U.S. government adopted the metric system in 1866. But what it failed to do was restrict the use of the old system in any way that actually affects regular citizens. We haven't made the crucial transition from "soft metric" ("1 pint [473 milliliters]") to "hard metric" ("500 milliliters [1.057 pint]"), in which the imperial equivalent gets a smaller and smaller font size and eventually disappears.
Why? Well, these numbers aren't just used in math -- there are imperial measurements built into the culture and language. We instinctively know that it's good for an NBA center to be 7 feet tall instead of 6, something that gets lost when you switch it to 2.13 meters. There is a mental image associated with a "quarter-pound" hamburger, or a gallon of ice cream. Changing the units of measure means changing the language and certain figures of speech.
"I'm not good with math. Just give me the 'bigass' one."
Still, these days, every country uses the metric system, except the United States. Well, and Liberia and Myanmar.
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