Who Did It Better? The Dirty Dozen vs. Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad image from Warner Bros Pictures

When the first trailer hit for Suicide Squad, I was super-hyped to see this movie. I thought it was a really cool and original premise: a secret government project recruits some of the worst comic book super villains in the world to take on an extremely dangerous mission. The bad guys are promised clemency if they cooperate, while the government gets to deny any involvement or knowledge if they fail or something goes wrong. In my excitement, I told my father about the movie, and he responded with, “So it’s just like The Dirty Dozen?”

The Dirty Dozen image from Amazon

It turns out that in 1967, MGM released a WWII film with the same basic premise. In this case, the bad guys were Army convicts who had been condemned by court-martial for various offenses, but were offered a chance at freedom if they agreed to a mission deep behind enemy lines in occupied France. The film was regarded at the time as exceedingly violent, but over the years it has become regarded as one of the classic, great WWII films. As for Suicide Squad, it was based on a comic book series of the same name, but the comic book was itself inspired by The Dirty Dozen, so it is fair to see the new movie as something of a very loose adaptation of the older one.

That led me to ask a very obvious question: Which movie was better?

The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen image from Mubi

Directed by Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Flight of the Phoenix), The Dirty Dozen stars Lee Marvin (M Squad, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valiance) as Maj. Riesman, a rebellious, insubordinate jerk who is assigned to whip the convicts into shape and train them for their mission. He isn’t exactly thrilled with the assignment, and one is led to believe that his superiors gave him this job as a form of punishment. It doesn’t help that the convicts selected for the mission don’t get along with him or each other. The tension between the characters is well-delivered, as you can feel the constant threat of a fight, or worse, a mutiny.

However, after a few training montages that let us get to know these guys, we start to see them gain respect for each other and eventually back each other up when things get dicey. Each character’s motivations are clear and believable, and the whole ensemble has great chemistry together. The most complete story arc follows Victor Franko (John Cassavetes), who goes from being the most selfish of the bunch to a truly steadfast and selfless leader. There are a number of clever comedy bits as our anti-heroes show up the more prim and proper soldiers. Then, of course, the film reaches its climax with the mission itself, presenting us with an emotional roller-coaster mixed with edge-of-your-seat suspense and action.

Obviously, being a 1967 film made with a 1967 budget and 1967 special effects, the movie doesn’t have all the CGI explosions and other bells-and-whistles modern moviegoers have come to expect. While there are one or two places where that really shows, I would argue that, for the most part, it actually works to the film’s advantage. By NOT having too many special effects to rely on, the filmmakers had to focus on delivering characters we want to root for and a story we are invested in. If anything, the older, pre-blockbuster aesthetic in the set design, costuming, and special effects gives the film a certain charm that many modern films lack.

While the movie was by no means perfect, with a few scenes going on a bit long and one character in particular making some very poor decisions to advance the plot, I say The Dirty Dozen is overall a very good film. It’s an excellent popcorn movie for a lazy afternoon, and it would be good to include in a WWII movie marathon. An 8 out of 10.

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad poster from Wikipedia

Hoo boy, where to begin.

Suicide Squad apparently caught the same bug that infected Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s as if somebody at Warner Bros. keeps looking at the movies they’ve been making about the DC Comics characters and going, “No, no, this is too good. We need to cut in some bad here to even it out.”

While Suicide Squad is far better than Dawn of Justice, in large part because it’s nowhere near as dour or dark and has plenty of levity to it, the film is plagued by baffling decisions. For example, Director David Ayer (Training Day, Fury) apparently decided that this modern-day Dirty Dozen clone with comic book characters should go for a hip-hop gangsta theme in its visuals and tone. Okay, that’s weird. What makes it infuriating, though, is that he fails miserably, resorting to over-the-top stereotypes like having several main characters covered in tattoos and speaking in phony street slang. The end result looks like hip-hop culture as understood by rich advertising executives.

On top of that, the film’s editor John Gilroy (Nightcrawler, The Bourne Legacy) must have been asleep at the wheel. Scenes are cut and spliced in very strange places, whole sequences feel like they are in the wrong place, and there are a few times where we see flashbacks to things we have already seen earlier in the film. It makes the movie hard to follow in places.

In spite of all that, you can still tell that there is a good movie in there fighting to get out. Will Smith turns in a great performance as the assassin Deadshot, and Margot Robbie practically steals the show as Harley Quinn. The role of authority-figure-trying-to-keep-these-bad-guys-in-line is split between two characters, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who shows how dangerous having an ends-justify-means mentality can be, and her subordinate Griggs (Ike Barinholtz), a no-nonsense soldier who is trying to hide the fact that deep inside, he’s facing a huge emotional crisis. The complex interplay between these two characters is both unique and very interesting.

Yet all of these good performances come to a screeching halt as soon as Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Dallas Buyers Club) appears on the screen. I’m calling it right now: Jared Leto is the worst Joker ever. He absolutely fails in this role, and ironically enough, it’s because he is trying too hard. The Joker works when he’s understated and menacing, but Leto is overacting loudly.

I really wanted to like this movie more than I do. It had great scenes, great action, and some really good performances. It’s clear that there is a good movie in here trying to claw its way out. As it stands, though, I’m giving it a 6 out of 10.

The winner: The Dirty Dozen

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Sometimes, just because something is new doesn’t make it better. The Dirty Dozen is a classic for a reason, and Suicide Squad just doesn’t compare. You don’t need special effects, a modern “cool” hip-hop look, or Will Smith to make a good movie. You do need a good story delivered well with good performances, good directing, and good editing and pacing. That’s something Hollywood knew in 1967, and could stand to learn again in 2016.

Where did the Olympics come from?

Olympic Flag image from Collins Flags

The Olympics are back! Time once again for athletes from around the world to show us what they’re made of as the best of the best compete for the gold. It’s an epic event that only happens every four years, during which people around the world are watching and cheering on their home country’s team.

But why do we do this? Why do we have an Olympic Games, and why are they only every four years? Where did the Olympics come from?

The answer is a bit more complicated than you might initially think. To understand the Olympics, we have to go back in time to ancient Greece.

The original Olympics

Ancient Greek pottery image by MatthiasKabel

According to tradition, the first Olympic Games were held in Greece in 776 BC. There are multiple legends explaining the origins of the games, all of them based on Greek mythology. What is known is that the games were a very important religious festival for the ancient Greeks, who counted the years in their calendar in relation to the Olympiad, the four-year period between the games. These ancient games were always held in Olympia, a small village that was home to one of the most important temples to Zeus.

During the games, all the city-states of Greece would observe an Olympic Truce, agreeing not to fight any wars with each other during the games so that athletes could safely travel to the games and back. Any Greek man who was not a slave could participate, and everyone from kings to peasants won awards for their athletic achievements. Interestingly, only unmarried women were allowed to watch the event; married women had to stay away. This was probably because ancient Olympian athletes were completely naked.

These ancient games included some sports that are still a part of our modern Olympics today – foot races, jumping competitions, discus throwing, wrestling, and boxing. However, the ancient games also included chariot races, something our modern Olympics don’t have.

These ancient Olympic Games lasted for a thousand years, surviving the conquest of Greece by the Macedonians and then again by the Romans, and they remained a part of Greek culture for generation after generation. There was one thing it would not survive, though: Christianity.

In 312 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine claimed to see a vision just before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge that told him to paint Christian symbols on his soldiers’ shields. After Constantine won the battle, he converted to Christianity. A later emperor, Theodosius I, banned the earlier pagan faiths and ordered all Romans to convert to Christianity. The Olympics, a festival that honored Zeus, not Jesus, were abolished in 393 AD.

That was the end of the story for the Olympics, then, for 15 centuries. That is, until one French baron had an idea.

The Olympics reborn in the modern age

1896 Olympic Games image from Wikipedia

Baron Pierre de Coubertin was a historian in the late 19th century who studied ancient Greece and was passionate about education. He saw both training a strong mind and training a strong body as being necessary for a healthy man, and encouraged schools to adopt the same philosophy.

Coubertin was not the first man to think that some sort of revival of the ancient Olympic games for the modern age would be a good thing. As early as 1850, the small English village of Much Wenlock began organizing the “Wenlock Olympian Games”, an annual competition founded by Dr. William Penny Brookes, a local doctor and lover of all things ancient Greek who wanted to encourage the townsfolk to get more exercise.

Meanwhile, interest in ancient Greek history was also experiencing a major revival in Greece itself, as the nation had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Two wealthy and patriotic, if eccentric, cousins, Evangelos Zappas and Konstantinos Zappas, organized and funded modern recreations of the ancient games in 1859, 1870, and 1875, as a way to celebrate Greek history and culture.

Coubertin was inspired by these earlier competitions, but objected to certain aspects of them. The English were too obsessed with social class, he believed, and he sternly objected to the Zappas family’s refusal to let any non-Greek participate in their games. In Coubertin’s mind, the essence of the ancient Greek Olympics was about building bridges, understanding, and common brotherhood.

In 1892, Coubertin proposed an international competition in keeping with his interpretation of the spirit of the ancient Olympic games. He managed to get a large number of like-minded sports officials from several countries together in Paris in 1894, where they set up the International Olympic Committee. In 1896, the very first of the modern Olympic games were held in the ancient Panathenaic Stadium, a racecourse built in 330 BC in Athens. These games saw 241 athletes from 14 countries participate in 43 events. Four years later, another Olympic Games were organized and held in Paris as part of that year’s World’s Fair.

The unrecognized games that saved the movement

Marathon race finish photo by James Edward Sullivan

It turned out that having the Olympics as a side-show for the World’s Fair was not a good idea. Far more people were interested in the fair itself than in some guys in shorts running. The 1900 Olympics had no opening or closing ceremony of any kind, and the competitions were a mish-mash of whatever sports the organizers could think of from ballooning to motorcycle racing. The 1904 Olympics at the St. Louis World’s Fair was even more embarrassing. That year, only 12 countries participated, and in the majority of the events, only Americans competed. Official “Olympic” events recognized by the IOC were mixed in with competitions crammed in by the Americans. After 1904, it was looking like Coubertin’s dream would be a side-note of history.

Then, in 1906, Athens hosted another “Olympics” at the Panathenaic Stadium. Originally, Coubertin and the IOC planned to host an official Olympics in a different city every four years as well as a secondary competition in Athens in between. The 1906 Athens games, however, proved to be a far bigger and grander event than the official Olympics thus far. Twenty countries sent 854 athletes to compete in 78 events. These were the first games to have an opening ceremony where the athletes paraded with their national flags through the stadium, the first to have a medal awards ceremony that featured the national flags of the winners being raised, and the first to have an Olympic Village for the athletes to stay in during the games.

The 1906 games were a massive success that provided a model for all future Olympics would follow. Yet, ironically, today they are not recognized by the IOC and all the medals and awards given out to its athletes have been scrubbed from Olympic history. The reason? In 1949, a commission examined whether the 1906 games were considered official at the time or not, concluded that they weren’t, and argued that accepting them could set a precedent for anyone to organize their own “Olympics”.

The flag and the torch

Of course, there are two more things we associate with the Olympics that need some explaining: the Olympic flag and the Olympic torch.

The flag was designed by Coubertin in 1912, featuring five colored, interlocking rings on a white background. Blue, yellow, black, green, and red – the colors of the Olympic rings – are also the most common colors you will see on most flags around the world. The rings represent the five continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia) while white represents peace.

During every Olympic Games, a flame burns in a massive cauldron over the main stadium, a tradition introduced in the 1928 Amsterdam games in honor of the ancient Greek myth of how Prometheus stole fire from Zeus to give it to humanity. However, it would be the 1936 Olympics in then-Nazi-controlled Berlin that would first light a torch in Olympia and have an international relay of honorary runners carry the flame from Greece to the stadium hosting the games. In spite of its origins, the torch relay was reintroduced for the 1948 London Olympics, and it has been a key component of the build-up to the games ever since.

Enjoy the Olympics in Rio, everyone! I know I will. Good luck, Team USA!

Strange Politics: The Bizarre History of Sealand

The Flag of the Principality of Sealand

The Flag of the Principality of Sealand

Let’s talk for a moment about micronations.

As this video explains, defining what is and is not a country is much more difficult than it appears at first. While everyone agrees that the United States, Russia, Japan, Brazil, and South Africa are countries, there are plenty of “countries” that are not recognized as such by many. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, for example, looks like a country when you fly there – they have a functioning government, a clear border, a military, and even a national soccer team – but the only country that recognizes its independence is Turkey. The rest of the world considers it a part of the country of Cyprus that has been invaded and occupied by Turkish troops.

Micronations take this one step further. They are “countries” that lay claim to sovereign territory but are not recognized as countries by anyone, anywhere. In large part, this is because these “countries” are things like the Republic of Molossia, founded by some guy in Nevada who declared his 1.3 acre property to be its own independent nation so he could wear a funny uniform.

This guy actually claims to be waging a decades-long war with East Germany, to give you an idea of what kind of man he is.

This guy actually claims to be waging a decades-long war with East Germany, to give you an idea of what kind of man he is.

Then there’s the Conch Republic, a “country” that was formed in 1982 when Key West, Florida “seceded” from the United States. As you might expect from the laid-back vacation destination, none of the Conch Republic’s “citizens” take their claims of independence seriously. The whole affair was originally set up as a protest movement against the construction of a Border Patrol roadblock on the only highway connecting the island to the mainland. Today, the continued existence of the “Republic” is mainly an amusing tourist attraction. Its motto? “We Seceded Where Others Failed.”

Yet among the many such micronations around the world, there is only one that might actually have genuine claims to be an actual country. Let me introduce you to the Principality of Sealand.

This place.

This place.

Our story begins in World War II. To defend British waters from German attack, the Royal Navy and British Army built a collection of offshore defensive towers and forts. These were designed by British engineer Guy Maunsell, and so they were called “Maunsell Forts”. They acted as a deterrent against amphibious German landings on Britain’s shores and German naval attacks on British shipping. Of course, when the war ended, the need for these towers disappeared, and over the next several years they were abandoned, one by one.

They would not stay abandoned for long. To understand why, we need to talk about, of all things, British radio broadcasting.

Unlike in the United States, where radio stations have almost always been private, commercial endeavors from the very beginning, radio in the UK and most other European countries was completely controlled by the government for decades. The BBC had a legal monopoly on all radio broadcasting until 1972. This was a problem for many young British music listeners. The BBC saw itself as a public service, first and foremost, and therefore didn’t broadcast very much pop or rock music in the 1950s and 1960s. To satisfy this demand, illegal pirate radio stations were set up on many of these abandoned offshore towers that would play the latest hits.

It wasn’t long before the British authorities began cracking down on these illegal broadcasts. However, one of these radio broadcasters, a WWII veteran named Paddy Roy Bates, found himself in a major stroke of luck. After several run-ins with the law for his pirate broadcasts, he holed up on a Maunsell Fort called HM Fort Roughs off the coast of Suffolk. This particular tower was actually just outside British territorial waters, meaning the platform was not under the UK’s jurisdiction. On September 2, 1967, Bates declared the creation of the Principality of Sealand, claiming the abandoned tower to be a sovereign nation with himself as its monarch.

Bates, however, would have to defend his prized new turf, as other envious pirate broadcasters tried to kick him out and claim the tower for themselves. At one point, the Royal Navy decided they had better step in. For their troubles, they were fired upon by Michael Bates, Paddy Roy Bates’s son. Both Bates men were arrested over this incident, but were acquitted on the logic that the British court had no jurisdiction over actions taking place outside British territorial waters.

Soon, Sealand had a flag, anthem, constitution, coins, passports, and stamps – all the trappings of a true country. Meanwhile, the British demolished all of the nearby Maunsell Forts to keep anyone from deciding to copy Bates’s example. For the better part of a decade, Sealand continued its existence as a minor oddity in the North Sea. Then, it very suddenly faced something that many true countries face – war.

In 1978, a group of German and Dutch men with guns led by Alexander Achenbach invaded the tiny country with speedboats, jet-skis, and helicopters, capturing Michael Bates and holding him prisoner for three days before exiling him to the Netherlands. Achenbach proclaimed himself “Prime Minister of Sealand” and intended to build a casino on the platform. The Bates family hired a helicopter and launched a counterattack to retake their country. Using secret caches of weapons they had stashed on the platform, they gained the upper hand and forced the enemy to surrender. Achenbach and his followers were tried for treason and imprisoned.

The governments of Germany and the Netherlands asked the British to intervene and save their citizens who, in their minds, were being held prisoner in an abandoned tower by a crazy British guy. However, the British cited the earlier court ruling that had acquitted Paddy Roy and Michael Bates a decade earlier and said this was not their jurisdiction. In response, Germany sent a hostage negotiator who was able to secure the release of Achenbach and his followers.

Did this mean that Germany had technically recognized the sovereignty of Sealand as a nation? The Bates family certainly thought so, and ever since they have loudly proclaimed that they are no mere micronation, but a legitimate country.

So how does the world’s smallest “country” support itself economically? Here’s a better question: Have you ever wanted to be a Knight, Lord, Lady, Baron, Baroness, Count, or Countess? Thanks to the Principality of Sealand, you can have a noble title of your own for as little as £29.99! You can also buy property on Sealand, a Sealand citizenship ID card, a personalized Sealand coat of arms, a Sealand flag, a copy of the Sealand constitution, the official jersey of the Sealand national soccer team, Sealand postage stamps, Sealand coins, and Michael Bates’s autobiography. Just visit Sealand’s official website, where you can find all of these things and more!

Of course, that’s if you accept the current regime on Sealand as legitimate. Remember Achenbach and his followers? After they were freed, they declared themselves a “government-in-exile” and claimed to be the legitimate rulers of the principality. They have a website of their own, where they proclaim their motto, “Facts are the Enemies of the Truth”. Yes, really.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, the bizarre history of the world’s smallest nation.

Hmm… I wonder if there are any places off the California coast just outside U.S. territorial waters?


50 Facts for 50 States

Flags image by Unsplash

Happy 4th of July Cat Flaggers! In honor of our nation’s birthday, I have decided to do a Cat Flag special to celebrate this great nation of ours – one interesting or unusual fact about every state in the Union! Let’s see how well we know our country, shall we?

Alabama – The red imported fire ant, that bane of many a barefoot southerner, was accidentally introduced in Mobile, Alabama in the 1930s. Authorities tried to stop their spread by bombarding the land with pesticides, but that backfired badly when the pesticides eliminated much of the fire ants’ competition, allowing them to spread even further, and now the species has colonized 17 states and Puerto Rico.

AlaskaThe tallest mountain in North America had been known for centuries as “Denali” by the native Koyukon people who lived there, but in 1896 gold miners renamed the mountain “Mount McKinley” after William McKinley, the Ohio-born 25th president. In 1975 the Alaska state government asked for the federal government to officially change the name back to “Denali”, but congressmen from Ohio spent decades blocking Alaska’s request, insisting that “their” president’s name stay on the mountain. Finally, in 2015, Alaskans got their wish when President Obama approved the name change.

Arizona – The Hopi Indian pueblo of Oraibi in Arizona is the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement in the United States, believed to have been founded in 1100 AD.

ArkansasThe Crater of Diamonds State Park is the only place in the world where you or I or anyone else can try your luck digging for diamonds, garnets, amethysts, and other gemstones and keep any you find. Park visitors take home more than 600 diamonds each year.

The Flag of California

CaliforniaThe state flag of California famously features a grizzly bear, the phrase “California Republic”, and a red star representing Texas.

Yes, Texas.

A bit of history – in the early 19th century, various parts of Mexico were trying to break away, including the short-lived republics of Yucatan, Rio Grande, and of course, Texas. California attempted a short-lived rebellion of its own in 1836, and in solidarity with Texas the rebels adopted a “lone star” flag – a red star on a plain white banner – inspired by the Texan lone star flag. That red star found its way on the Bear Flag used by rebels in Sonoma ten years later who backed the U.S. invasion of California in the Mexican-American War, and thus it remains on the California state flag today.

Colorado – It won’t surprise you that the state famous for the Rocky Mountains has the highest elevation of any state. Having said that, it might surprise you to learn that Colorado’s lowest point is 3,317 feet above sea level. This is by far the highest lowest point of any state, higher in elevation than 18 states’ highest points!

Connecticut – New London, Connecticut is home to the USCG Eagle. This old-fashioned wooden sailing ship was built in Nazi Germany in 1936 and originally named the Horst Wessel after the author of the Nazi anthem. After the German surrender in World War II, the ship was handed over to the Americans, who gave it a new flag, a new name, and a new paint job. Now it is known as “America’s Tall Ship” and in addition to training Coast Guard officers, it makes occasional diplomatic voyages to countries around the world.

Delaware Blue Hen image by Tim Westbrook

Delaware – The state bird of Delaware is the Delaware Blue Hen, a breed of chicken that was specifically bred for cockfighting. During the American Revolutionary War, the Delaware regiment brought some of these birds with them to amuse themselves in the downtime between battles. The other soldiers were impressed with the ferocity of the birds and with the ferocity of the Delaware soldiers, and so they dubbed their comrades from Delaware “Blue Hens”, the only time calling someone a chicken was a compliment.

Florida – The Walt Disney Corporation has a special arrangement with the State of Florida regarding Walt Disney World, essentially giving the corporation certain governmental powers within the park boundaries. The park has its own Disney police, its own Disney fire department and ambulance services, its own Disney utilities services, its own Disney building codes and zoning ordinances, and its own Disney-built and Disney-maintained roads.

Georgia – Heaven help you if you need to get around in Atlanta. One of the most important of the city’s streets is Peachtree Street, which is also called Peachtree Road in some neighborhoods, but it is not West Peachtree Street, a different street entirely. Then there’s New Peachtree Road, Peachtree Creek Road, Peachtree Parkway, Peachtree Lane, Peachtree Avenue, Peachtree Battle Avenue, Peachtree Circle, Peachtree Plaza, Peachtree Drive, Peachtree Park Drive, Peachtree Way, Old Peachtree Road… you get the idea.

Hawaii – The Hawaiian Islands exist because of a “hotspot” under the Pacific tectonic plate that pushes hot magma up to the surface, spewing out as a volcano that builds and builds until it forms an island. As the plate slowly moves over the eons, the hotspot under it stays put, leading to the formation of an island chain. However, scientists have no idea what is causing this hotspot, meaning our 50th state’s very existence is a scientific mystery.

Map of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming image from Wikimedia Commons

Idaho – If you look at a map of Idaho, it looks like Montana took a huge bite out of it, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because that’s exactly what happened. According to the book How the States Got their Shapes and the TV series of the same name, Idaho’s shape is the result of one man’s grudge against it.

Sidney Edgerton was appointed a judge in the Idaho territory, but the governor assigned him to a remote, backwater area populated by gold miners and practically nobody else. When news reached Edgerton that Congress was planning to split Idaho and create a new territory called “Montana”, he made his way to Washington, D.C, with $2,000 of gold, and… ahem… “convinced” Congress to draw the Idaho-Montana boundary far further west than originally intended. A rather unique form of revenge, to say the least.

Illinois – The ancient Mississippian Indian civilization built a thriving city-state in Cahokia, Illinois, that flourished from the 9th to the 13th centuries AD. Like other Mississippian cities, the Cahokians built dozens of artificial hills, the largest of which is Monks Mound – a man-made hill as big around as the Great Pyramid of Giza and 100 feet tall. In its heyday, Monks Mound had a very large building sitting atop its peak, possibly a temple or royal palace.

Indiana – If you find yourself looking for a bite to eat in Evansville, Indiana and stop into the Hilltop Inn, you might try a very unusual item on their menu – fried-brain sandwiches. Yes, they are exactly what they sound like: slices of pork brains pan-fried and served on a bun. You know, if you’re feeling adventurous that day.

Iowa – You would think the question, “Were any Civil War battles fought in Iowa?” would be an easy one to answer, but it’s not. The Battle of Athens, Missouri took place just across the state line in 1861, and during the battle some members of the Iowa militia sat on the river’s edge – in Iowa – and fired their cannons into Missouri at the enemy. Does that count?

Kansas – You might remember an amusing study conducted in 2003 that claimed Kansas is, indeed, flatter than a pancake. However, don’t read too much into that study, as other scientists came out after the study was published and said “Everything on Earth is flatter than a pancake as they measured it”. The lesson here was less about Kansas and more about pancakes, which just aren’t as flat as you might think.

Kentucky – Bourbon whiskey gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it was first produced. However, over the centuries, the original Bourbon County shrank as more and more new counties were lopped off of it. In fact, from 1919 to 2014, there were no bourbon distilleries actually located within Bourbon County!

Louisiana – In the rest of the United States, our legal system is what’s known as “common law”, a system that originated in England. Louisiana, however, has a different legal system known as “civil law” based on colonial French and Spanish law. The main difference between these systems is that common law is allows judges to set precedents in their rulings that can be used by future similar court cases, while civil law is based solely on what is written in the law codes.

Maine – The United States and Britain nearly went to war over Maine’s northern border. At the time, the United States and Canada disagreed on where the border was, which was a problem when loggers began to compete for lumber in the disputed region. In 1838, the governments of Maine and New Brunswick each mobilized their militia, prompting the American and British governments to try to hammer out their differences before any shots were fired. The current border was settled in the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

MarylandThe official state sport of Maryland is jousting. I’m just going to leave that fact there for you to ponder.

Massachusetts – Both basketball and volleyball were invented ten miles away from each other in Springfield and Holyoke, Massachusetts, respectively.

Michigan – If you have ever wondered why the Upper Peninsula is a part of Michigan in spite of having no land connections with the Lower Peninsula, the answer has to do with Toledo, Ohio. In 1835, Michigan claimed that the city was actually Toledo, Michigan, and was willing to fight Ohio with guns to enforce that claim. As with Maine, cooler heads prevailed and reached a peaceful settlement: Ohio got Toledo, and in return Michigan was given the whole Upper Peninsula.

Minnesota – We need to stop calling Minnesota the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It doesn’t have 10,000 lakes. It has 11,842 lakes. Get it right.

Steamboat image by jared422_80

Mississippi – You would be forgiven for thinking the Mississippi River is the western border of the state of the same name, but if you look at a map drawn by a careful cartographer, you will see many little pockets of Mississippi on the west side of the river, as well as tiny pieces of Louisiana and Arkansas on the east side of the river. This is because when the river changes course, the state borders do not.

Missouri – Missouri is home to a dialect of French that is unique to the state, long spoken by descendants of early French settlers. Today, however, the dialect is near extinction, as only a handful of elderly speakers remain.

Montana – The Montana Highway Patrol has the numbers “3-7-77” on their badges and uniforms. In the Wild West, this was a warning vigilantes would use to tell people they didn’t like to get out of town or face a lynching.

Nebraska – Unlike most states, whose legislative branches have both a Senate and a House or Assembly, Nebraska has only one legislature, boringly named the “Nebraska Legislature”. It is also the only state legislature that is nonpartisan; candidates don’t run as Democrats or Republicans, but run independently.

Nevada – The famous Las Vegas Strip and all of the casinos and attractions located there are not actually located in the City of Las Vegas, but instead are in an unincorporated area juuuust outside the city limit called “Paradise”, so those casinos don’t have to pay city taxes.

Old Man of the Mountain image from Wikipedia

New Hampshire – That photo above shows one of the Granite State’s most famous state symbols, the Old Man of the Mountain, a rock formation above Profile Lake. However, natural erosion being what it is, the formation collapsed in 2003. Sorry, New Hampshire.

New Jersey – Salt-water taffy originated in Atlantic City, New Jersey. No, it doesn’t have any salt water in it, but a popular legend has it that the name comes from an incident at a candy store in 1883. A huge storm flooded the local shops, the story goes, so when a young girl went to buy some taffy the next day, the owner warned her that all he had was “salt-water taffy”, and the name stuck.

New Mexico – In 1680, the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico successfully drove the Spanish off their lands in an uprising. Not only that, but they successfully repulsed Spanish attempts to reconquer them for 12 years. When, at last, the Spanish reasserted control of New Mexico, they found the Pueblo were surprisingly agreeable and more willing to come to terms – it seems the leader of the Pueblo Revolt, Popé, turned out to be a harsh dictator who angered the other Pueblos and was ultimately overthrown.

New YorkThe Erie Canal was dug across the State of New York from 1817 to 1825, connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes and playing a huge role in the westward expansion of the United States. Of course, in our modern age of trains, planes, and automobiles, it’s just an old ruin, right? Nope! Boats continue to use it to this day.

North Carolina – Nobody is sure how the Tar Heel State got its nickname, but one popular legend from the Civil War says that North Carolina’s soldiers in a very dicey battle stayed put while the regiments from other states retreated. After the battle, the story goes, the North Carolina soldiers threatened to put tar on the heels on the other troops so that they wouldn’t be able to break and run like that again.

North Dakota – When President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamations formally admitting North Dakota and South Dakota to the Union on November 2, 1882, he purposefully shuffled the papers so nobody would know which state was admitted first.

Flag of Ohio from Wikipedia

Ohio – The Buckeye State has the only state flag that isn’t rectangular. The swallowtail design is based on swallowtail-shaped flags used by the U.S. military in the 19th century.

Oklahoma – In 2004, the seven-mile segment of the North Canadian River that flows through Oklahoma City was officially renamed the Oklahoma River. Not the whole river, mind you, just that one part.

OregonNobody actually knows where the name “Oregon” came from. Was it named by the Spanish for the oregano that grows there? Did the name come from the French ouragan, meaning windstorm? Or was it named for an error on an 18th-century map showing “Ouaricon-sint” (Wisconsin) far further west than its actual location? Your guess is as good as mine.

Pennsylvania – The Philadelphia Zoo is the oldest in the United States, opening in 1874. The house of John Penn, grandson of Pennsylvania founder William Penn, is located on the zoo’s grounds.

Rhode Island – In 2010, the State of Rhode Island spent $75 million in borrowed money to prop up a video game developer called 38 Studios, in the hopes of making the state a new hub of the video game industry and bringing jobs to the state. Two years later, 38 Studios went bankrupt, and the scandal thoroughly rocked the state as Rhode Islanders asked their state government, “Seriously?”

South Carolina – As a history buff, the American Revolutionary War is one of my favorite periods in history, and one of my favorite battles in that war is the Battle of Cowpens which took place in South Carolina in 1781. The American commander, Daniel Morgan (who was practically crippled from rheumatoid arthritis), had the local militia march into battle against a crack British division. The militia broke and retreated after firing a mere two volleys, and the British chased after them – only to find that this was all an elaborate trap set by Morgan, who had a whole battalion of elite, well-trained Continental regulars waiting for them at the bottom of the hill. To put it mildly, the Americans won the battle decisively.

Mount Rushmore image by Dean Franklin

South Dakota – All of us know Mount Rushmore as the most massive monument we have to our greatest presidents. But the designer of the monument, Gutzon Borglum, would know it as “incomplete”. See, his original plans called for the president’s depictions to reach all the way down to their waists, but in 1941, the funding ran out, and people figured “eh, their faces is impressive enough”.

Tennessee – The state of Tennessee and the river of the same name that runs through it are both named after a Cherokee village, Tanasi, that existed until the early 19th century.

Texas – June 19th or “Juneteenth” is an important holiday to many African-Americans, as it celebrates the abolition of slavery in Texas on that date in 1865, the last of the Confederate states to free its slaves. Today, 45 states recognize the holiday in some capacity.

Utah – Many a speed demon has flocked to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to see how fast they can push their vehicles, as the dry lake bed gives a wide-open field with virtually no obstacles, making it a perfect track. Many land speed records have been set here.

Vermont – Though Vermont helped out a bit during the American Revolutionary War, it wasn’t committed to the new United States, in large part because both New York and New Hampshire claimed their land. For a few years, Vermont was effectively an independent country, and even at one point considered rejoining the British Empire, before finally being admitted as the 14th state in 1791.

Virginia – Recently, commercials have been airing on TV promoting tourism in Virginia with the slogan “Virginia is for Lovers”. This slogan has been used, unchanged, since 1969. If it ain’t broke, I guess.

WashingtonThe county where Seattle is located was originally named “King County” in honor of 19th-century politician William Rufus King. Then, in 2005, it was renamed “King County” in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

West Virginia – The state of West Virginia wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Civil War. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, a group of pro-Union Virginia politicians gathered in Wheeling and declared the secession illegal, proclaimed themselves the “Restored Government of Virginia”, and authorized the northwestern part of the state, which was generally more pro-Union and anti-slavery, to form a new state. For political reasons, Abraham Lincoln’s government recognized the “Restored Government” as the “legitimate” government of Virginia, and accepted the plan to split the state, admitting West Virginia as a free state in 1863.

Wisconsin – The NFL’s Green Bay Packers are the only top-tier, major league professional sports team in the United States that is a non-profit cooperative owned by its fans. The team currently has more than 360,000 owners, who are referred to as “stockholders” even though they can’t resell their stock or earn dividends on it like stock in a normal corporation. Instead, “stockholders” get the right to vote on important team decisions and exclusive stockholders-only merchandise.

Wyoming – The only state in the Union named after a place in another state, Wyoming gets its name from Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of our great nation, and hope you all have a Happy 4th of July!

Behind the Headline: The UK votes to leave the EU

Brexit image from The Millennium Report

The vote is in: 51.9% of British voters approved leaving the European Union, a vote that has shocked the world and shaken the world’s economy. Already, the value of the pound sterling has fallen, there is talk of thousands of people in the UK losing jobs, and doomsayers predict the European Union falling apart as others decide to follow Britain’s path. In the run-up to the vote, most economic experts, big businesses, and politicians from around the world urged British voters to stay in the EU, with the most notable exception being U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. In response to the news, British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation, saying he will leave office in October.

So what, exactly, happened here? What happens now? And how will it affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

What is the European Union, and why was Britain a member?

I’ve talked about the European Union on Cat Flag before, so I’ll be brief: The European Union is a unique political entity covering 28 European countries that functions in some ways like an international organization made up of sovereign nations (members have their own militaries, embassies, passports, seats at the United Nations, and Olympic teams), and in other ways like a national government whose members are federal states (the European Union can pass laws that can override the laws of its own members, citizens of its members are also citizens of the EU, and people and goods can pass freely across its members’ borders with each other while the EU controls immigration and trade with the outside world). Many, but not all, EU members have agreed to use the euro as their common currency and to eliminate all border checkpoints between each other so people can cross from country to country the same way Americans can drive or fly from state to state.

The European Union evolved gradually over the decades into its modern form, originating in post-WWII trade and economic treaties that were designed to try to make a third devastating war in Europe impossible. It wasn’t even called “The European Union” until the 1990s; prior to that, it had been called the “European Communities”. Two simultaneous trends shaped the organization at this time – first, members gave the Union more and more power, and second, the Union admitted more and more members.

It was in this context that the United Kingdom joined in 1973, at a time when the European Communities were still a primarily economic and trade union that looked very different from today’s EU. It was primarily for economic reasons that the British joined; they were struggling economically, and hoped free trade with Europe could provide a big boost. This fact has long played a huge role in Britain’s relationship to the EU. To the British, EU membership was always about what was in it for them, and they never fully committed to complete integration into Europe as other members had. The British refused to adopt the euro, refused to throw open their borders to the same extreme degree as the rest of the Union, and repeatedly got into fights with the EU leadership and other EU members over the EU’s powers. Public approval of the EU has consistently been lower in the UK than most other member countries.

Still, there have always been pro-EU voices in Britain as well. While the vote to leave was close overall, 62% of Scottish voters had cast their ballots in favor of keeping the UK in the EU. British farmers have long been dependent on agricultural subsidies from the EU, and poverty-stricken parts of the UK such as Cornwall have been receiving economic investments from the EU for years. More than a million British citizens live, work, or own property in Europe. The most popular personality on YouTube, Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie, is a Swedish national who lives in the UK and is able to do so because of the EU’s freedom-of-movement laws. The “Brexit”, as the British voters’ decision to leave has been called in the media, has put all of this in possible jeopardy. Already, many British voices are calling for a do-over because of these facts.

Why did the UK vote to leave?

That’s an easy question to ask, but a hard one to answer. The most common answer the political analysts seem to turn to is immigration. Even though the British had managed to get opt-outs of some of the EU’s open-border policies, at the end of the day, while it remained a part of the EU the British government had to give up control of its immigration policy to the Union’s decision-makers in Brussels. Furthermore, any person who was an EU citizen could freely visit and move to the British Isles. Thanks to the UK’s welfare laws, once somebody got in the UK, he or she could count on government-subsidized housing, taxpayer-funded health care, and government aid to pay for living expenses. Immigration has been a perennial issue in British politics for decades, with some arguing that the British Isles just aren’t big enough and don’t have enough jobs or resources to support too many immigrants, and some of the more extreme anti-immigration voices have been accused by critics of being racist or xenophobic. When you consider the haphazard way the European Union responded to the Syrian refugee crisis, it comes as no surprise that British voters may have felt the UK would be better off deciding for itself what its immigration policy is.

On the other hand, the European Union was in a crisis long before there was any talk of Syrian refugees in the news. Remember when the European Union faced a massive economic emergency in the wake of the Greek debt crisis? Or how Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and Cyprus also faced financial crises of their own at the same time? The economies of many of those countries are still weak, with unemployment reaching 24% in Greece, 20% in Spain, and 15% in Croatia as of February. Since EU members are required to send part of their tax revenue to the European Union, and 30% of the EU’s budget is spent on those regions that have lower incomes and weaker economies, British taxpayers have effectively been seeing their pounds spent on these other countries over the years.

Then there’s this analysis in the New Yorker, which looks at the demographic breakdowns of British voters who cast ballots for “Leave the EU” or “Remain in the EU”, and finds that the “Remain” voters tended to be well-educated, young, and well-off while working-class voters generally tended to vote “Leave”. The author of that piece suspects that working-class anger at Britain’s politicians, who have long been known to be more pro-EU than the general British public, helped tip the scales. I admit, though, that I am not an expert on British politics, so make of that as you will.

Is the UK the first country to leave the EU?


In 1982, Greenland, a large arctic island with a population of just over 55,000 living under Danish rule just northeast of Canada, voted to leave the federation, largely due to the island’s inhabitants wanting control of Greenland’s fishing regulations rather than being forced to abide by Brussels’s fishing rules. In 1985, the Greenland Treaty formally ended the island’s membership, and since then the island has been largely self-governing. As Denmark is still part of the EU, Greenlanders are EU citizens, but EU law does not apply there.

So what happens now?

Exit sign image by Alton

In 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, and one of the things that it did was create a mechanism by which members could leave. First, a member country would submit some sort of notification to the EU that it intended to leave, and then the EU would negotiate an agreement with that country on what the future relationship of that country to the EU would be after it leaves. For example, a country might want to leave the EU but still have free trade with it, still have a working relationship with it on military matters and security policy, and so on.

There is a two-year deadline from the date of notification to reach an agreement, unless the EU and the country in question should agree to extend that deadline. If no agreement is reached, the country’s membership just up and terminates on the deadline date, and the EU treats the country just like any other foreign country. A country that leaves the EU can rejoin later, but would not receive any special treatment in its application.

In response to the vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron had initially said he would leave it to his successor to formally notify the EU, thus delaying the withdrawal process. The idea behind this would be to give Britain more time to negotiate an exit that would allow the UK to retain access to trade with Europe. However, EU leaders have told the British government to start the process right away and not delay, going so far as to say that “notification” need not be a formal written document; as one official told Reuters, “He can just say it.”

Why so hasty? Well, the United Kingdom, a country that is home to more than 65 million people as well as one of the world’s most important financial centers, has a much bigger impact on the EU than Greenland. People are already speculating in the media about which country might be tempted to leave next, and there are a number of upcoming national elections in several EU members that are facing political shake-ups in the wake of the euro crisis and Syrian refugee crisis. Better to rip the band-aid off quickly, the thinking goes, so the economy and diplomatic relations can re-stabilize and find a “new normal”. If the exit process is delayed too much, it could make things even shakier for far longer.

How does this affect me?

Obviously, if there’s one thing markets don’t like, it’s uncertainty. We’re already starting to feel the economic shocks from the vote, but I expect that will probably stabilize once we have a clearer picture of what is going to happen in the coming years between Britain and Europe. Still, not great news for anybody’s 401(k) plans.

Obviously, the vote also complicates diplomatic relations between the UK and the United States, and likely will for some time, though I doubt our two countries’ long-standing alliance will be diminished. We are both members of NATO, after all.

But what about you, dear Cat Flagger, sitting here reading this? Well, it looks like a vacation to the British Isles just got cheaper, as a weaker pound makes it easier for Americans to afford British prices. This article from BBC News lists several more ways Americans will be directly affected by the Brexit, from the possibility that British investors might want to get into the American real estate market to the strong likelihood that popular TV shows made in Britain such as Doctor Who and Game of Thrones will take a huge hit in the wallet.

In the longer term, I expect international travel in Europe to become more complicated. Anyone travelling from Britain to anywhere else in Europe, or vice-versa, will likely have to abide by new rules and controls, and may even need to get visas. If other countries follow Britain’s lead, that’s even more border controls that weren’t there before a traveler would have to deal with. Trade will also likely be affected in the long-term, as the United States had been in the middle of negotiating a huge trade agreement with the EU that now looks like it may not happen. Expect the cost of goods imported from Europe to go up if the companies that ship them over here have to pay more in tariffs.

For now, we can only wait and see, as it will likely be a while – possibly months – before we get a clearer picture of what a post-Brexit Europe will look like. However, I am optimistic that once we have started to get that clearer picture, things will start to improve. I believe that people are adaptable, and are very good at finding the right path once they know what map it is they are looking at.


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