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Guest Blog-star: Meet Michael Stusser, Take 2

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Good day! Michael Stusser, here, with another This Day in Blogstery!

Washington_Monument.jpgOn October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument opened to the public. It seems appropriate, then, that we'd give you a little bit of our Dead Guy Interview with the fabulous George Washington. First, though, a little background on the monument itself.

The Continental Congress started chatting about a monument to honor Georgie Boy in 1783 while the POTUS was alive and well and might enjoy the view himself. By 1847, they'd collected $87,000 for the project (mostly in pennies), and picked Robert Mills to draw something up. The architect's design was truly beautiful "“ a lot better, in fact, than the giant tower we've got now. It had a decorated obelisk that rose 600 feet, surrounded by a gorgeous circular structure full of columns that would house busts of all the Presidents and national heroes.

A cornerstone for a much less elaborate monument was laid on July 4, 1848, and things progressed nicely until they ran into political opposition "“ and out of dough - in 1854. This was Washington D.C., remember. Nothing goes according to plan. Oh, and the Civil War kinda slowed things down, too.

President Grant got things moving again in 1876, and the monument was dedicated in 1885, and finally opened to we citizens on October 9, 1888. It cost $1,187,710 to build "“ chump change, really, when you think about all the golden toilets we're paying for these days"¦. You can take the stairs (50 landings and 897 steps) to the top, or the elevator which makes the trip in 70 seconds. Me? I'll do my walking at the top (555 feet above ground). Sweet view!

And with that, I give you "“ a condensed "“ conversation with President Washington from The Dead Guy Interviews. For the full, in-depth interview with Mr. Washington, you'll have to buy my book - but it'll be worth it: I cannot tell a lie!

Click below to read Michael's terrific interview with the very dead George Washington.

George Washington (February 22, 1732-December 14, 1799)

51hxFy7FRnL._SS500_1.jpgGeorge is our first and most famous President, as well as our toothless poster-boy, adorning the one-dollar bill, Mt. Rushmore, postage stamps, the quarter, a State, and about 1,000 biographies. He's also America's first true hero.

Young Georgie was raised in Virginia, and, strangely enough, wanted nothing more than to be an officer in the British army when he grew up. (He liked their crisp red suits and tight formations, and fought with the British in the French and Indian War "“ 1754-58.) Instead, his experience and reputation as a level-headed soldier made him the perfect choice to lead the Colonial army, and, thus, General George wound up fighting against the Brits in the Revolutionary War. Over eight long years, Washington led a rag-tag crew to victory and independence. (GW actually lost more battles than he won, but was a helluva inspiration to his men and "“ most importantly - victorious in the end.)

Though a fierce commander on the battlefield, he really was "gentle George" off it "“ showing a more sensitive side once the war was over, even pardoning some opponents with whom he had direct clashes.

Washington's early work surveying land in Virginia gave him what he later needed as President - common sense, resourcefulness, a firm handshake, and the understanding that he didn't know everything; surrounding himself with great minds (Jefferson, Adams, et al.), he was our nation's first team-builder.

On April 30, 1789, G-Dub was unanimously elected by Congress as our first commander-in-chief. Being first is never easy, and George had to figure out everything from how taxes would be collected to where the capital should be located (Washington D.C. of course). As it turned out, he could have stayed for as many terms as he could handle, but bowed out after 8 great years.

He retired in 1797 to Mt. Vernon where he walked daily with wife Martha, tended to his 8000 acres, and passed away after some lousy medical treatments for a cold on December 14, 1799.

THE INTERVIEW

MS: Gotta ask about the whole cherry-tree episode.GW: Never happened.

MS: What?! So you lied about cutting down your father's cherry tree! You can tell a lie!

GW: No, you see, the story you're referring to was written after I was gone.

MS: How do I know you're not lying about this?

GW: Listen, Mason Locke Weems made the story up in a biography about me the year after I died. (The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.) But let's not be too hard on him, here "“ Mr. Weems was simply spinning a little yarn to give the youngsters some moral guidance. No harm done.

MS: At least you didn't lie about it. Now, tell us about the ol' wooden dentures.

GW: They weren't actually wooden.

MS: Oh boy.

GW: I had a bunch of sets made to fit around the only tooth left in my head, see? One was fashioned out of iron, we tried cow teeth, another from hippo tusks "“

MS: Whoa!

GW: Yeah, they smelled to high heaven though, so I moved on to a set made from human teeth.

MS: How'd Martha like those?

GW: She was happy I didn't gum her to death.

MS: Martha was loaded. Bet marrying the colonies' wealthiest widow had its advantages, huh?

GW: Young man, if you're implying"¦

MS: Well she wasn't exactly a beauty.

GW: At ease, soldier! I loved Martha. She was a good housewife, we were married for forty wonderful years, and I will not hear of this!

MS: As a kid, you wanted to join the British Army. By the time you were in the Virginia legislature you were their toughest critic. What happened?

GW: Tell you the truth "“

MS: You cannot tell a lie!

GW: I applied for a commission in the British army in "˜54 "“ and got rejected. Then I started paying attention to what the Brits were doing in the 1760's "“ taking away our rights and taxing everything from tools to playing cards.

MS: At what point did you realize you'd have to fight them?

GW: I think it was 1768 or thereabout when I told George Mason I'd take my musket on my shoulder whenever my country called.
Once the parliament passed the Tea Act (1773) and our boys dressed like Indians and dumped tea into Boston Harbor, I knew it was going to get ugly.

MS: Still, you didn't support colonial independence till 1776.

GW: That's correct. Took Thomas Paine's Common Sense to knock some sense into me.

MS: The British forces were better trained, better funded, better organized. What was your strategy for beating "˜em?

GW: Stall tactics, really. We felt like the longer the war went, the sicker the Brits would be of the whole bloody mess.

MS: Anything else?

GW: Well, we took a page from the Indian's handbook and fought them from behind rocks and trees "“ stayed out of the cities whenever we could so the redcoats couldn't thump us too bad. I also paid our troops with my own money. Kept them from mass desertions and mutiny.

MS: One of the lasting images of you is a painting of your Christmas crossing of the Delaware.

GW: Never saw it. Was dead fifty years on.

MS: Oh. Right. Well, here's a copy.

Washington is shown a copy of artist Emanuel Leutze's painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851)

GW: Goodness. That boat looks like a sardine can.

MS: So, it wasn't exactly like that?

GW: What am I doing standing up in this painting? Makes me look like an idiot. And, though I love the sentiment, we weren't flying a flag - we were on an undercover mission "“ in the pitch dark! In fact "“ let me see that again "“ that looks like James Monroe holding the flag "“ he wasn't even in my boat. And is that a woman rowing at the stern? Pretty sure all aboard were male soldiers.

MS: Most people think of you as a great soldier, but you bungled plenty of missions.

GW: And I thank you for pointing that out, son. You ever served?

MS: No sir.

GW: OK then. It's damn hard, let me tell you. Remember, we were greatly outnumbered, and our gents didn't want to fight if they didn't have to. My job was to keep the crew together, then pick and choose the right battles. And lest you forget, we won the thing.

MS: The US and Great Britain signed a peace treaty in 1783 that recognized American Independence, and you "retired."

GW: Yep, that was the idea "“ head back to Mt. Vernon, do a little fox hunting, put my feet up.

MS: Good plan. What happened?

GW: The States started going in different directions, see, and the Articles (of Confederation) didn't seem like they'd keep everybody together. So James (Madison) and Alexander (Hamilton) decided to put together a meeting in Philly to tweak "˜em a bit.

MS: You're talking about the Constitutional Convention (1787).

GW: What? Yeah. So the delegates there picked me to chair the little pow-wow and we wrote up the document.

MS: The Constitution of the United States.

GW: Huh? Oh, yeah. Long story short, I was going to retire "“ once more "“ but the darn delegates picked me again.

MS: The Electoral College. For President.

GW: Huh? Yeah, right, and so I did that for a while"¦.then I, uh, retired again.

MS: No offense, sir, but you seem disinterested in our little chat.

GW: Huh? Oh, you still talking?

MS: Yes, sir, I was saying you seem a bit bored with our interview.

GW: Oh, no. No, see, I'm a bit hard of hearing. Blasted influenza hit me during my second term, plus my vision was shot to hell. I'm sorry. I'll pay more attention. Where were we?

MS: If you wanted to retire, you could have gone home after your first term.

GW: Yeah, guess that's true, it's just that in 1792 we were still a real young country. It was dicey "“ hit n' miss if we'd pull the experiment off.

MS: Democracy.

GW: Mmm hmm. The other reason I may have stayed was that they didn't run anybody against me, see, so I didn't have to campaign. I was OK with the business, though I preferred agriculture, to be honest.

MS: You can not tell a lie!

GW: Yeah. We get it.

MS: The phrase, "Washington Slept Here." How'd that come to pass?

GW: I felt like, as the first President, I should go to as many inns and houses as possible. Meet n' greet, press the flesh. I hauled all up and down the union, north and south, and people just started using that phrase, I guess.

MS: So it wasn't because of your rumored promiscuity?

GW: No.

MS: Remember, you can not tell a "“

GW: I said no!

MS: You owned slaves. That's not so PC these days.

GW: Guilty as charged on that account, and I'm not proud. I will say that I had good intentions. In 1786 I wrote that I hoped we could adopt some plan, by which slavery would be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.

MS: Yeah, like that was gonna happen. What changed your mind on the issue?

GW: After commanding multi-racial troops in the Revolutionary War, I got to know the men, and realized slavery was a massive American anomaly. I also felt bad breaking up families when I purchased slaves in a lottery. You know, I did free half my slaves in my will. (Though George ordered his slaves freed upon Martha's death, she freed them all in 1800.)

MS: I'm sure the other half were thrilled. How would you describe your leadership style?

GW: Surround yourself with people smarter than you. It was my idea to create the presidential cabinet "“ more heads in the room. I had Tommy Jefferson as my Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton running the treasury "“ pretty good crew.

MS: Wish those guys were running the show now, actually. You had an early warning about political parties.

GW: Factions, I called "˜em. Point was that we needed as much cooperation as we could get just to survive. Too many selfish parties divide the country along partisan lines and that's just no good. But I'm sure democracy has solved those problems in the last two-hundred plus years.

MS: You have no idea, sir. Have you seen the Washington Monument?

GW: Yes, it's"¦well"¦.

MS: Phallic! Five hundred and fifty five feet of manliness!

GW: That's a bit much. I'm humbled.

MS: Well then you gotta see Mt. Rushmore, sir. Your head is 60 feet tall. Then go visit Washington State, and after that "“

GW: You know, son, I think I'll pass for the time being.

MS: Bet you didn't know that we all get to take your birthday off from work!

GW: Speaking of time off, young man, I'd like to spend some time in Mt. Vernon with Martha. Maybe take a nap.

MS: Oh, one of my favorite quotes from you is, "Far better to be alone, than to be in bad company!" So profound, sir!

GW: No lie. So if you'll excuse me"¦.

END of INTERVIEW.

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NASA // Public Domain
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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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