CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

What Does a U.S. Ambassador Do?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, was killed last night along with three other Americans when an Islamist mob stormed the American Consulate in Benghazi. With the tragic story all over the news today, reader Kimberly wrote to ask what, exactly, goes into being a U.S. ambassador.

In the strictest sense, U.S. ambassadors represent the President of the United States in an official capacity in foreign nations and communities. They are charged with protecting and promoting national interests, maintaining diplomacy, organizing visits, welcoming visitors, and supporting resolutions. If a U.S. citizen living or visiting abroad gets into legal trouble of some sort, it is the duty of the ambassador to ensure that said citizen is treated justly. This doesn't mean, however, that the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey can spirit you out of the country without reprisal if you've been found with a pound of cocaine in your luggage; it simply means that he or she can make sure you've got access to legal counsel while you're in prison awaiting trial.

While to casual observers it may seem like an ambassador's work day is filled with giving speeches and glad-handing at cocktail parties, these social engineering opportunities are actually an important part of strengthening international relationships. The ambassador learns of local concerns and criticisms (for example, beef exports from Ireland to the U.S.) and has the ability to take those issues directly to Washington. The ambassador is also the chief executive at his foreign embassy and is in charge of making sure embassy staff abide by the local laws and customs.

Getting the Job

A solid background in politics and a fluency in a foreign language would seem like necessary resume bullet-points in order to be granted an ambassadorship, and the majority of U.S. ambassadors are career foreign-service diplomats. But why do some folks with no credentials other than celebrity status or deep pockets manage to land such a post?

Presidents have certainly used ambassadorships as a way to thank their friends and supporters. But one part of our ambassadors' jobs is to ingratiate themselves (and thus the U.S.) to foreign countries by providing funding for local programs, whether it be building schools or training midwives to assist pregnant women. In these cases, celebrity status can be more beneficial than a graduate degree in international economics. Beloved child star Shirley Temple (previously the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia) can give a few impassioned interviews about the need for maternal health care programs in Africa, and her celebrity cohorts will open their wallets.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
iStock

Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
iStock
iStock

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios