Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Chivalry is Dead....And Women Killed It

"Is chivalry dead?"

A rhetorical question posed countless times each day by women disappointed with the actions of some brutish man in their life.

Well, the answer is simple.

Of course it's dead.  And women killed it.

Chivalry is a notion that dates back to the Middle Ages.  Ironically enough, in the Middle Ages, chivalry wasn't just about men giving women special treatment.  Chivalry was a complete social code for the upper classes, and it dictated behavior in everything from correspondence to tournaments to wars to table manners.  It also, of course, dictated behavior in interpersonal relationships among both sexes.  The notion was born from the knighthood institution, and was based on concepts of honor and virtue, and the belief that honorable knights should be devoted to protecting the defenseless - which would have included not just women, but also children, the sick, and the elderly.

In this day and age, of course, when people talk about chivalry, they aren't talking about any of that happy crap; they're just talking about men treating women like princesses.

The whole idea of this special treatment for women goes back to a pre-modern time when women were essentially second-class citizens.  In the United States, women weren't even allowed to vote until 1920, much less hold political offices or any other prominent position of power.  Women belonged to their fathers until they got married, at which time they essentially became the property of their husbands.  Only if a woman became a widow was she ever likely to own land.  Generally speaking, women were expected to pop out babies, take care of the house, and cook meals.  Other than house work, it was extremely uncommon for a woman to have an actual job or profession.

So this is where modern notions of chivalry come from - the idea that men need to protect women, because men rule the world and women are weak, second-class citizens who basically belong to either their father or their husband.  It is the exact same notion that tells us parents are supposed to care for and protect their children.  Children are weak and defenseless and need tender care.  In the same way, a man's wife was like his child, and it was his responsibility to protect her and nurture her.

I don't need to give a detailed explanation about how that sort of social situation no longer exists in our modern country.  Today women have all the same rights, expectations, and privileges as men.  They own property, have careers, make decisions, manage people - all the things that used to be the exclusive purview of men.

And why do they have all those rights?  Quite obviously, because they insisted on it.  Women spent nearly a century fighting for equal rights with men, from the suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to Rosie the Riveter, to countless pieces of legislation guaranteeing equal treatment for women under the law.  While this was happening, women also began "liberating" themselves and becoming outspoken politically, socially, culturally, and sexually.

The result is that today, women and men have the same social and legal rights, privileges, and expectations.

And the other result, of course, is that chivalry is dead.

In fighting for, and gaining, equal rights with men, women killed chivalry.  Its death was collateral damage in the war for equal rights.  Equal rights between men and women, and chivalry, cannot coexist.  Chivalry existed because women didn't have equal rights with men.  Once they gained those rights, chivalry was forced into the grave of history.

Now I'm not saying that women shouldn't have equal rights.  I'm all about women's rights in every conceivable way.  What I am saying is that women need to STFU about chivalry, because unless they want to return to the days when they were second-class citizens, chivalry is well and truly dead.  Some women, it seems, want to have it both ways; they want to have their cake and eat it too.

Sorry, ladies.  Chivalry is dead.  You killed it.  And you can't have it back.

Monday, July 23, 2012

10 Interesting Facts

1. Cricket chirps are related to air temperature.  Count of the number of times a field cricket chirps in 15 seconds, add 40, and the result will give you the approximate temperature in Fahrenheit.

2. The U.S. penny is made mostly of zinc, with just a copper coating.  Copper accounts for only about 2% of the penny's total make-up.

3. It takes the earth about 365 days and 6 hours to make one full orbit around the sun.  For this reason, we add one extra day every four years to balance the calendar (6 hours x 4 = 24 hours every four years).  However, this is not precise because that additional time each year is really only about 5 hours and 49 minutes.  What this means is that over long periods of time, adding a full 24 hours every four years gives us too many extra hours.  To solve this, we skip a leap year on every century year.  Thus, 1900 was NOT a leap year.  However, even this doesn't fully solve the problem, and takes us too far back the other way.  Therefore, every 400 years, we do not skip the leap year.  This is why the year 2000 was a normal leap year.

4. Jesus's name was not Jesus.  Translated directly into English, his name was Joshua.  We get Jesus because "Joshua" is first translated into Greek, and then from Greek into English.

5. The longest Interstate in the U.S. is I-90, which goes from Boston to Seattle and spans more than 3,000 miles.  The Interstate system was developed during the Eisenhower administration in response to the Cold War, as a way to move military equipment and soldiers quickly, in case of invasion.  It was projected to cost $25 billion and take 12 years to complete.  In the end, it cost nearly $115 billion and took 35 years to complete.

6. During the War of 1812, the British attacked Washington, D.C., burned down the White House and the Congressional buildings, and forced president Madison and all his cabinet to flee the city.  Later, the final battle of the war - the Battle of New Orleans - took place more than two weeks after the peace treaty had been signed.

7.  Of the fifteen highest-paying professions in the United States, thirteen are in the medical industry, including the top eight.  The highest paid profession is anesthesiology, with the average anesthesiologist making about $235,000 per year.  The lowest-paying profession belongs to fast food cooks.

8. Due to continental drift, New York moves about one inch farther from London every year.

9. Oil companies make up six of the ten largest corporations on earth, including the top two.  The biggest retailer on earth is Walmart.  Among fast food chains, Subway is the largest, with McDonald's a close second.  Thanks to its Happy Meal, McDonald's is the largest distributor of toys in the world.

10. The most venomous animal on land is the Inland Taipan snake of Australia.  The most venomous in the sea is the Sea Wasp Box Jellyfish, also found near Australia.  The animal responsible for the most deaths worldwide is the mosquito.  In the U.S., the animal responsible for the most annual deaths is the deer.

Monday, July 09, 2012

America's Language

Today, I saw a bumper sticker depicting a snarling, finger-pointing Uncle Sam, with the caption: "If you can't speak English, get the HELL out of America!"  Ironically enough, the vehicle this was plastered on was a Suzuki hatchback.


There is no official language of the United States.  According to the most recent census data, nearly 20% of American citizens speak some language other than English as their primary language.  That's about 1 in 5, and that only refers to citizens of the U.S. - not immigrants.  No less than 20 different languages (including English) have at least 250,000 native speakers in the United States.  English never has been, and never will be, the only language spoken by Americans, no matter how badly ignorant xenophobes want it to be otherwise.

The fact is, in the United States today, there is virtually no one who doesn't have an ancestor somewhere in their family tree who didn't arrive in this country unable to speak English.  Even families like mine, who have mostly British Isles extraction, almost always have non-English speaking ancestry in some branch somewhere.  So rather than pointing your finger and lamenting about all the people who don't speak English, just thank your lucky stars that your family arrived here long enough before you were born that you never had to worry about learning a new language.

There's a reason that the U.S. Constitution doesn't include any wording about English, or any other language, being the official language of the United States - it's because the United States was founded on the principle of the melting pot, open to anyone who wants to come here and live and work and be a productive member of society.  Multi-lingualism has been part and parcel of the American way since before Day 1.  Martin Van Buren, our nation's eighth president, was not only the very first American president born a U.S. citizen (that is, born in America after the Revolutionary War), but he was also a native Dutch speaker who spoke English as a second language, and with a heavy Dutch accent, until the day he died.  And guess what?  Nobody gave a damn.

In the modern world, the only countries that legally name just one official language are island nations, military and Communist dictatorships, and Muslim theocracies.  Want to join that crowd, O patriotic Lover of Freedom?

On any given day, when you encounter people who don't speak English, or don't speak it well, in 9 out of 10 cases, you are encountering people who have probably not been in this country for very long.  The fact is, 96% of Americans, regardless of what their native language is, say they speak and understand English "well" or "very well."  Give newcomers a chance to learn the damn language before you go around getting your unwashed, skid-marked panties in a wad.

In numerous regional areas in the United States, English is a second language.  This includes huge swaths of places like Louisiana and Texas, among others.  If you're so concerned about what languages people are speaking, why don't you march your pretentious little ass down into the bayous of the Creole country, or the drug-smuggling cities of the Chicano regions, and preach about it to some of the passers-by.  I'm sure they'd LOVE to hear your opinions.

Numerous immigrants come to this country every year, and the vast majority of them are hardworking, diligent individuals whose industry is a enormous economic boon to the cities and counties and states they are working in.  Many of those people go on to become active citizens of the United States.  Others work for a few years and then return home.  In any case, scores of those same people work tirelessly to learn English, while also raising families and working, in many cases, 15 or 18 hours a day.

So instead of sitting there on your NASCAR-watching, fat American ass, too goddamn lazy to press "1" on your touch-tone phone, and criticizing people who make up a vital segment of this population, why don't you instead just give a simple thank-you to those folks who make your life a little bit better?  Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!


(Sorry, I segued into a line from A Few Good Men there at the end.  But it somehow seemed appropriate.)

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Understanding Weight Loss

A strange topic for me to be writing about,  eh?  I've recently been trying to lose weight, having gained a considerable amount over the last 6 or 7 years, and so it's had me thinking about the dynamics of weight loss and why certain diets seem to work, but others don't.

I've always been a big carbohydrate eater.  Breads, sugary foods and drinks, cereals, pastas - these have always been the most significant parts of my diet.  I also have tended over the years to overeat on a magnificent scale.  I'm one of those people that can put others in awe of my eating prowess.  

So in order to lose weight, I decided to go on a low-carb diet for a few weeks to get the ball rolling on weight loss, then readjust later to a normal diet with a reduced overall caloric intake.  I haven't yet gotten to phase 2 - that will begin in a week.  I don't own a scale, so I can't say how much weight I've lost, but I can tell I have trimmed down.

In any case, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things I am learning about the dynamics of weight loss.

To begin with, it might be instructive to provide some basics about human energy and nutrition.  When people talk about losing weight, the first thing they always mention is that dreaded word "calories."  It seems as though a lot of folks imagine calories to be these little particles in food that enter your body and determine whether you lose weight or gain weight.

A calorie is simply a unit of energy, in the same way that a centimeter is a unit of distance.  Quite literally, a nutritional calorie (also called a kilocalorie) is the amount of energy required to heat one liter of water by one degree Celsius.  Therefore, if you have one liter of water, with a temperature of 45 degrees Celsius, how much heat energy would be required to make it 46 degrees?  Answer: one calorie.

So a nutritional calorie is simply a unit of measurement that tells us how much energy we are consuming.  

The human body, of course, requires energy to stay alive.  Your muscles, bones, and organs all require energy in order to function.  We get that energy from the foods we eat, because our bodies convert those foods into calories - units of energy to fuel our bodies.  A car won't run without gasoline; it burns gasoline as energy.  Similarly, our bodies won't run without food because our bodies burn food as energy.  And we measure that energy in calories.

The human body is able to convert three types of food into energy - carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.  The number of calories (i.e., the amount of energy) the body can get from these sources depends on the amount of food eaten and the type of food.  Generally-speaking, one gram of fat will provide nine calories, while one gram of carbs or protein will equal about four calories.  Anything else you eat provides 0 calories - that is, no nutritional or metabolic benefit.  It just passes right on through.  

Most people understand what fat and protein are - fat is, well, fat, and protein is the stuff that builds muscle tissue and plays a role in numerous chemical processes in the body.  Carbohydrates are a little more confusing, because there are so many different kinds.  As a general rule, carbohydrates can essentially be thought of as sugars.  That doesn't mean, of course, that foods high in carbs will necessarily be sweet (see bread, pasta, and potatoes), but when you ingest carbs, they end up functioning like sugar in your body.

We've seen that the human body turns nutrients in food (carbs, fats, and proteins) into energy (calories) in order to keep itself alive and healthy.  So how many calories does your body actually use on a day-to-day basis?  This number is referred to as the "base metabolic rate," and it refers to how many calories your body uses each day simply keeping itself alive.  Imagine that you lay in bed from midnight to 11:59 p.m. - 24 hours - and do nothing but sleep or read or watch TV.  How many calories would your body burn in that 24-hour time period?  The answer is your base metabolic rate, and that will vary depending on your age, height, and weight, as well as several other factors.  There are common formulas you can use to figure out your own personal rate; mine is about 2300 calories per day.  So if I did nothing at all but lay in bed or sit on the couch for 24 hours, I would burn about 2300 calories.  That's how much energy my body would require to keep my heart beating, my lungs working, my neurons firing, etc.  Now, I am 6-foot, 3-inches tall, and weigh about 250 pounds.  Someone much smaller than me will, of course, have a much lower base metabolic rate. I have a big body, so it takes a lot more energy to keep me going.  

If I get up off the couch and engage myself in some kind of physical activity (washing the dishes, going up the stairs, blogging, running a mile, climbing a mountain), then I will burn even more calories, depending on how much activity I am actually engaging in.  This is why exercising is regarded as a way to "burn calories."  You use up more energy (more calories) if you actually get up and do something.  I've been able to determine that because of the physically-active nature of my job, I may burn as many as 3500-4000 calories per day (which would be the sum of my base metabolic rate plus my daily activities).  I should have no problem at all losing weight, but this just goes to show you how much I tend to overeat.  

The human body's preferred source of energy is carbohydrates.  (Some low-carb diet gurus dispute this, suggesting that because the earliest humans were hunter-gatherers, and thus had meat-based diets, the most "natural" form of human metabolism comes from fats and proteins.  Most nutritionists, however, don't buy that argument, but to explain why would involve a very long and boring discussion of human biochemistry and physiology, and I don't want to get into that here.  Suffice it to say, the prevailing belief is that carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of energy).

As a result of this, the human body will always burn carbohydrates for energy before touching fat or protein. Therefore, if you eat a diet high in carbohydrates, your body will tend to simply use those carbs for energy, and whatever fat you eat will, quite literally, go to your gut.  I can testify personally to this phenomenon.  This is one of the reasons why low-carb diets work so well for quick weight-loss.  If you cut out your body's preferred source of energy - carbs - you effectively force it to burn fat instead.  And since you probably won't consume enough fat on any given day for your body to meet its nutritional needs, you will end up burning fat stores (adipose tissue) from your body to get energy.  Thus, you trim down quickly, even without adding any new exercise routines.

This is also the reason why low-fat diets so frequently fail for people.  When you eat a low-fat diet, you are, by necessity, eating a lot of carbs (low fat foods tend to be high in carbohydrates, and vice versa).  Thus, your body burns those carbs for energy, and even though you aren't adding much new fat, your body never gets through all the carbs in order to get to the fat.  So you may diet for weeks and never lose much weight.  You have to dramatically increase your activity level in order to burn enough calories on any given day to burn through all the carbs and get down to the fat.  This is why exercise routines almost always accompany low-fat diets.  This is also why low-carb diets are so alluring.  You don't have to change your level of physical activity: you just burn fat - and lose weight - because you've taken away the carbohydrate source.  

While most nutritionists agree that low-carb diets can help a person lose weight quickly, they also warn against eating a low-carb diet for a long period of time.  There are several reasons for this.  First, the kinds of foods you eat on a low-carb diet tend to be foods that are not so good for your heart, brain, and other organs.  Secondly, when you force your body to burn fat instead of carbs, it releases fatty acids into your blood stream, and if this happens to a great enough degree, it can actually cause a very serious medical condition known as ketoacidosis.  This is where the pH balance of your blood gets off-kilter because of high acidity.  Now, it is unlikely that this condition would occur in a healthy person with a normally-functioning liver and pancreas, but it's not outside the realm of possibility, depending on just how "low-carb" you take your diet.  That's why many low-carb diet gurus suggest a carbohydrate intake of 60 grams or so per day (as opposed to the famous Atkins diet, which, in its first phase, limits the dieter to a mere 20 grams per day). 

I read about a study recently that took a group of dieters who were all roughly the same age, height, and weight, and who all had similar levels of daily physical activity, put them into three groups, and gave them different diets to try.  All groups were limited to 1500 calories per day.  The first group was put on a 1500 calorie low-carb diet.  The second, a 1500 calorie low-fat diet.  And the third was put on a 1500 calorie low-glycemic diet (this is a diet that primarily limits sugary food - a typical diabetic diet).  

After thirty days, they found that the low-carb dieters lost weight more quickly.  How could that be?  All had similar metabolic rates and daily levels of activity.  All were the same weight at the beginning of the study.  And all were limited to 1500 calories.  One would assume that they would all have lost about the same amount of weight.  And yet the low-carb group lost significantly more.  It would appear, for whatever reason, that the human body simply burns carbohydrate calories more efficiently.

Let me explain that.  The group eating a low-fat/high-carb diet lost weight more slowly than the group eating a low-carb/high-fat diet.  This must imply that when the human body is getting the majority of its calories from carbs (a low-fat diet) it does not require as many calories to do the same amount of work.  In other words, the human body doesn't use fat calories nearly as efficiently, and thus requires MORE calories to do the same amount of work, if those calories are coming primarily from fat.  It's sort of how Gasoline A might give your car 25 miles per gallon, but with Gasoline B, you get 30 miles to the gallon.  Your car burns Gasoline B more efficiently.  If you use Gasoline A, you need MORE gas to go the same distance.  Similarly, if you are burning mostly fat for calories (a low-carb diet), your body has to burn MORE of it to do the same amount of work.

Now, that's my own take on the study.  The people who performed the study actually said they weren't sure why the low-carb dieters lost more weight.  But it seems to me that perhaps a carb calorie is not equal to a fat calorie in practice, even though in theory it should be.

I have read some criticisms of low-carb diets that suggest that the real reason people lose weight is not because of the lower carbs, but because of a phenomenon known as "spontaneous reduction in food intake."  Put simply, when you go on a low-carb diet, you are more likely to dramatically lower your total caloric intake than when you go on a low-fat diet.  The reason why is simply because low-carb diets are far more restrictive on the types of foods you can eat than low-fat diets are.  On a low-fat diet, you can still eat a significant number of overall calories, and you are more likely to do so simply because you have removed high-fat foods that tend to be filling.  On a low-carb diet, however, you cut out a significant number of foods that dramatically limit what you can actually eat.  Furthermore, you tend to eat high-fat, high-protein foods that are very filling.  So in the end, you end up spontaneously eating far fewer calories, even though you aren't actually counting calories as part of your diet.  I can also personally attest to this.  While I have been eating low-carb, I haven't been counting calories.  But I know, based on my own past eating habits, that I am eating far fewer total daily calories, because the meat-based diet I am eating fills me up quicker, and I also skip all those high-carb snacks that I used to eat between meals.

Of course, there's still that study I read about recently that DID count calories, and yet still found that low-carb dieters lost weight faster than low-fat dieters.

In any case, I am convinced that a low-carb diet is a fantastic way to shed pounds quickly, if you are significantly overweight (I am just inside the "obese" category on the Body Mass Index scale).  It's also good if, like me, you have a tendency to binge on carbs.  But once you've lost that initial weight and have reached the point of maintaining a healthy weight, I am equally convinced that carefully watching your total caloric intake is the best way to go.  The body needs carbs, it needs fat, and it needs protein.  It works best, I believe, when it has a healthy combination of all three.  If you know what your base metabolic rate is (and it's easy to find out), then you can figure out very easily how much food you need to be eating on a day-to-day basis to maintain your weight.  In the long-term, the healthiest choice is simply to cut back on how much food you eat and stay active, but keep your diet varied and allow yourself to eat the foods you like, so that you can avoid feeling deprived.  Deprivation of your favorite foods is a sure road to binge-eating and weight gain.            

Thursday, July 05, 2012

10 Fun Facts About Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States

1. Benjamin Harrison was born near Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1833, to a prominent political dynasty with American roots stretching back to Jamestown in the 1630's.  Harrison's great-grandfather had been governor of Virginia and a member of the Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  His grandfather was the war hero and eventual 9th president of the United States, William Henry Harrison.  His father was a member of the House of Representatives.

2. In the late 1840's, Harrison attended a small Presbyterian prep school in Cincinnati, where he began dating the president's daughter, Caroline Scott.  They married in 1853 and had two children, a son and a daughter.  Harrison also attended Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, and graduated in 1852.

3. Following his marriage, Harrison moved to Indianapolis to begin practicing law.  One of his first jobs there was as a "crier" for the federal courthouse, responsible for walking the streets of Indianapolis and announcing decisions passed by the judges.  He eventually opened his own law firm and also served as a public attorney and law reporter for the Indiana Supreme Court.

4. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Harrison offered his services to the governor of Indiana, and was asked to assist in recruiting a regiment of volunteers.  The regiment became known as the 70th Indiana Infantry, and despite turning down the offer initially, he was given command of the unit and commissioned a colonel.  His unit played a front-line role in the final push through the South in 1864 and 1865, and Harrison was eventually promoted to brigadier general.

5. Following the war, Harrison returned to his law practice, and also continued working for the Indiana Supreme Court.  Having joined the Republican Party at its inception in the 1850's, he began gaining prominence in the local party, but resisted calls to run for public office, preferring instead to campaign for others.  This changed in 1872, however, when Harrison made a failed run for governor of Indiana.  He ran again in 1876, and again lost.  In 1878, after one of Indiana's U.S. senators died, Harrison was nominated to replace him, but lost yet again.

6. Harrison's luck finally began to change in 1880, when, after chairing the Indiana delegation to the Republican National Convention, he was again nominated for the U.S. Senate, and finally managed to secure the seat (at this time, prior to the 1913 passage of the 17th Amendment, U.S. senators from each state were chosen by the state legislature, rather than popular vote).  Harrison was also offered a position in the cabinet of newly elected Republican president James Garfield, but opted to take his seat in the Senate instead.

7. Harrison served only one term in the Senate, before losing his re-election bid in 1886.  He returned briefly to his law practice, but announced his intention to run for president in 1888.  A dark-horse candidate, he ended up winning his party's nomination when the delegates to the Republican National Convention could not agree on the two front-runners.  The general election was very close, and was almost completely divided between North and South - Harrison won virtually every northern state, and Grover Cleveland, the incumbent president, won every southern state.  Cleveland actually won the popular vote, but Harrison won by a comfortable margin in electoral votes.

8. Harrison is the first president in U.S. history whose voice exists on an audio recording - a 36-second clip of Harrison reading from one of his speeches.  Harrison was also the first president to install electricity in the White House, though he and his wife were terrified to use the light switches.  

9. In 1892, with the U.S. economy faltering, Harrison ran for re-election, pitted again with former president Grover Cleveland.  This time, Cleveland won by a comfortable margin in both popular and electoral votes.  Just a few weeks before the election, Harrison's wife died of tuberculosis, and his daughter took over the official responsibilities of the First Lady for the remainder of his term - the last time a non-spouse served as U.S. First Lady.

10. In 1896, Harrison married again, to a woman who was not only 25 years younger than him, but who was actually his own niece by marriage.  Mary Dimmick was the daughter of his deceased wife's sister, meaning she was not a blood relation to Harrison, but was a first cousin to Harrison's children.  His children refused to attend the wedding, and the union caused an estrangement between Harrison and his daughter and they never spoke again.  Harrison contracted pneumonia and died in March, 1901.  

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

15 Facts About the Fourth of July

1) Despite being “unofficially” celebrated almost since the beginning, the 4th of July was not officially made America’s national holiday until the 1940’s.

2) Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Harrison was the father and great-grandfather of presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison.

3) Although “Uncle Sam” came to be associated with the U.S. government, and specifically the 4th of July, as early as the 1810’s, Uncle Sam did not become America’s national symbol until the 1960’s.

4) There is no legitimate evidence to suggest that Betsy Ross actually sewed the first American flag.

5) “America the Beautiful” was composed on the 4th of July in 1895 by a college professor named Katharine Lee.

6) July 2, 1776, was actually the day that independence was declared from Great Britain, as part of a resolution passed by Congress on that day. On that day, John Adams declared that July 2nd would go down in history as America’s day of independence.

7) Only John Hancock, who was President of the Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The others did not sign until the following month.

8) 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, representing leaders from all 13 colonies. Pennsylvania had the most representatives with 10; Rhode Island had the fewest, with only 2.

9) Six men named William signed the Declaration of Independence; there were also six Johns, six Thomases, and six Georges. Other first names of signers included Lyman, Button, and Caesar.

10) “The Star Spangled Banner” is set to a tune that was originally a British drinking song, sung in pubs throughout England.

11) A committee selected the eagle as the national bird of the United States. Benjamin Franklin served on this committee (along with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) and is notable because he argued fiercely for the national bird to be the turkey.

12) On July 4, 1054 – some 700 years before the Declaration of Independence – Chinese and Arab astronomers recorded the explosion of a bright supernova in the sky, which continued to be visible for several months.

13) The United States Military Academy at West Point opened its doors on July 4, 1802.

14) Folk writer Stephen Foster, famous for his songs of Americana, was born on the Fourth of July, 1826.

15) Two signers of the Declaration of Independence later became president: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Strangely enough, both these statesmen died on July 4, 1826, within hours of each other (this was the same day Stephen Foster was born). 1826 was also the 50th anniversary of the document’s adoption, and thus a major historical milestone. A third president, James Monroe (who was not a signer of the Declaration of Independence) also died on July 4th, in 1831.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

10 Fun Facts About Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States

1. Gerald Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., in Nebraska in 1913, in the home of his wealthy grandfather, who was a prominent Omaha businessman.  His parents separated just a few weeks after his birth, however, due to his father's alcoholism and abusiveness.  Taken to Michigan, his mother gained full custody of her child and remarried in 1916 to salesman Gerald Rudolff Ford.  Though he was never adopted by his step-father, the couple almost immediately began calling their child Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr.  His name was not officially changed, however, until 1935, at which time he altered the spelling of the middle name to "Rudolph."

2. A Boy Scout and later captain of his high school football team, Ford attended the University of Michigan, where he became a star defensive lineman and won two national championships in the 1930's.  He would later specifically request the Michigan fight song to be played at his funeral.  After graduating with a degree in Economics, he attended Yale Law School before setting up a law practice in Michigan.

3. Ford served in the Navy on an aircraft carrier during World War II, before returning home to his law practice in 1946.  Shortly thereafter, he married Elizabeth Warren, a former model and dancer who had already been married and divorced once.  By this time, Ford had decided to run for Congress, and the couple decided to put off their marriage until just before the election, fearing that marrying a divorced ex-dancer during the campaign would hurt his chances of winning a seat.  The marriage happened in October, 1948, and Ford was elected to his first congressional term a few weeks later.

4. Gerald Ford served 13 consecutive terms in the House of Representatives, and became known as a moderate and mediator.  Significantly, he never authored any major legislation during his time in Congress, choosing instead to work behind the scenes.

5. Ford was a member of the Warren Commission, which was slated by Lyndon Johnson to investigate the Kennedy assassination.  A strong believer in the single-gunman theory, it was later discovered that Ford had worked secretly with the FBI to keep them informed of the commission's investigations, sometimes even reporting on other commissioners who were skeptical of the FBI's single-gunman theory.

6. During the mid-1960's, Ford was elected House Minority Leader for the Republicans, a position which he continued to hold after Richard Nixon was elected.  Johnson and Ford frequently butted heads on issues of policy, with Johnson once quipping that Ford had played "too much football without a helmet."

7. In October of 1973, Spiro Agnew, vice-president under Nixon, resigned amid a bribery and tax evasion scandal.  In such a situation, the 25th Amendment gives the president the authority to nominate a new vice-president, but the nominee must be approved by both houses of Congress.  Nixon nominated Ford, and Ford was overwhelmingly approved by Congress.  Ford took his oath of office on December 6, 1973.

8. Ford served as vice-president for only eight months.  In early August of the following year, new evidence came out in what was by then the 2-year investigation of the Watergate scandal, and Nixon abruptly resigned.  Ford was sworn in as president on August 9, 1974, the only person in U.S. history to assume the presidency without being elected to either the presidency or the vice-presidency.

9. Ford's 2-year presidency has generally gone down in history as unfavorable, aided largely by the fact that he unconditionally pardoned Richard Nixon about a month after entering office.  Ford believed it was the best thing to do for the country's political state of affairs; most Americans saw it as unjust political cronyism at its worst, and Ford was even accused of making a backroom bargain with Nixon, promising a pardon if Nixon would resign.  During the 1976 presidential campaign, Ford barely survived a run from Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, then went on to lose narrowly to Jimmy Carter.

10. Gerald Ford lived another 30 years after leaving the White House, and continued to be active in the public eye up until his death in 2006.  He lived long enough to become the longest living president in U.S. history, surpassing Ronald Reagan.  A moderate to the end, in his later years, Ford spoke in favor of both abortion and gay rights, and criticized the Bush administration for the war in Iraq.  

Sunday, July 01, 2012

10 Fun Facts About John Adams

John Adams, Jr., the 2nd President of the United States

1. John Adams was born in 1735 in Massachusetts, to a Puritan family that was already an old American family at the time of his birth.  His ancestors had arrived on the unsettled shores of the New World on the Mayflower, and had thus been among the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Adams' great-grandfather through his mother's side was John Alden, said to have literally been the first person to step off the Mayflower onto New World soil - a sort of Neil Armstrong of the 1620's.

2. Adams attended Harvard in the 1750's, earning both Bachelor's and Master's degrees there.  He began practicing law in the 1760's, and married his third cousin, Abigail Smith.  Together they had seven children, five of which lived to adulthood, including John Quincy Adams, who would become the sixth president of the United States.

3. As a lawyer, Adams first rose to prominence in 1765 during the colonial opposition to the British Stamp Act, which levied taxes for many paper products used in the colonies.  Since the British Parliament had enacted this tax without the approval of any colonial representatives, many colonists believed it was invalid, and John Adams was one of the biggest leaders of the opposition in Massachusetts.  Many of his perspectives were copied and disseminated throughout the colonies, and his name became well known.

4. A few years later, Adams again found himself in the spotlight when he agreed to represent the British soldiers accused of murdering colonial civilians in the infamous Boston Massacre.  Despite his growing disdain for British rule over the colonies, he famously stated that facts, while sometimes inconvenient, are "stubborn things," and must overrule other passions or political inclinations.  All but two of the soldiers were acquitted, and the two convicted were convicted on lesser charges.

5. Around the same time of the Boston Massacre trial, Adams was elected to the colonial Massachusetts legislature, where he became a forceful opponent of British rule.  Following the British blockade of the port of Boston as a result of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, the first Continental Congress was called, and Adams was elected as a representative.  His nomination for commander-in-chief of the new American armies was George Washington - a nomination which was heartily approved.

6. Adams was one of the most radical leaders of the Continental Congress, and helped lead the charge to encourage the colonies to form new governments and declare independence from Great Britain.  The name most commonly associated with the Declaration of Independence is Thomas Jefferson's; Adams, however, contributed significantly to its actual contents, and Jefferson later admitted that the document itself was essentially the brainchild of John Adams.  

7. In that same year, 1776, Adams published an influential pamphlet called Thoughts on Government.  In this document he argued for a legislature of two houses (bicameral legislature), a separation of executive, judicial, and legislative powers, and a federal government limited to only those powers expressly granted to it.  These ideas would go on to form the basis of most state constitutions, as well as the eventual U.S. Constitution.  

8. In 1789, following the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, Adams was elected to be vice-president under George Washington, and again in 1792.  Despite his lofty status, he was largely unhappy with his role, which he saw as essentially symbolic, with little to no real power or influence.  His negative impression of the vice-presidency as a largely powerless role has been echoed by vice-presidents ever since.  During his tenure under Washington, Adams became known by the nickname "His Rotundity," a reference to his weight and to the fact that he had argued (and failed) for loftier titles for the president of the United States (one such title was "His High Mightiness").

9. After Washington's retirement in 1796, Adams was elected president in what was, for all intents and purposes, the first true presidential election (Washington ran unopposed and won both his elections unanimously).  Adams defeated his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, by a mere three electoral votes, and Jefferson (according to the rules of the time) became his vice-president.  Their time in office was a stormy one, and Jefferson ran against Adams again in 1800, marking the only time in U.S. history that a sitting vice-president has run for election against a sitting president.  The election was again narrow - Jefferson won by eight electoral votes, and Adams was, effectively, sent into retirement.

10. Near the end of his term, Adams became the first president to live in the newly built Executive Mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.  He became the first of twenty-three (and counting) former lawyers to become president of the United States.  He also became the first (and counting) of seven Harvard graduates to occupy the presidency.  Finally, he became the longest living president in U.S. history until Ronald Reagan (Reagan was outdone a few years ago by Gerald Ford).  Adams died on the 4th of July, 1826, in the middle of his son's presidency, and on the same day as his old friend, colleague, nemesis, and later friend again, Thomas Jefferson.  Adams and Jefferson were the only two men who signed the Declaration of Independence who went on to become president, and they both died on its 50th anniversary.