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What Else Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?

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The Sergeant at Arms is perhaps most famous for being the guy at the State of the Union Address who shouts “Mister (or Madam) Speaker, the President of the United States!” But what does the Sergeant at Arms do the rest of the year?

The Sergeant at Arms traces its roots all the way back to the Roman Empire, where senior officers of state chose 12 patricians to act as bodyguards and serve police functions. These men had very few limits on their powers to arrest or use violence; they answered to no legal authority but their own master. King Phillip II of France borrowed this idea and formed a small, special corps of men, armed with decorated battle maces, to guard him when he traveled the Holy Land during the Crusades. The notion of a small cadre of police/guards found its way from France to England, via the Norman lords, as did the French name for the guards, sergent, from the Latin servientum (“servant, one who serves”).

In 1279, King Edward I of England formed a group of 20 men to act as the first royal bodyguard in England, Anglicizing the French sergent and naming them the Sergeants at Arms. The sergeants served various other functions for their king and counted among their responsibilities the arrest of traitors and the collection of debts. A little over a century later, the House of Commons received its own Sergeant at Arms* and since then, these officers have almost always been associated with legislative bodies.

Both houses of the United States Congress adopted the office of Sergeant at Arms in 1798. In the House of Representatives, the Sergeant at Arms’ chief task is maintaining order and decorum on the floor of the chamber. To that end, he is authorized to “display” the silver and ebony Mace of the United States House of Representatives – a visual reminder of Congress’ authority – as a warning to behave and use the mace in the aisles of the House Chamber to “subdue” disorderly conduct. Congress has also used the Sergeant at Arms as something of a bounty hunter/hall monitor in the past, dispatching him to retrieve absent representatives and bring them to House sessions, sometimes even escort them directly to their seat in the chamber.

The Sergeant at Arms’ role in the security of the House is reviewing and implementing security measures related to the Capitol and House Office Buildings. His office secures, limits access to, and performs sweeps of the House Floor and Gallery, oversees and secures the Visitors Desk and Parking Garage and administrates the distribution of all representatives’ and staff’s identification badges.

* There’s some debate over how Parliament got its own Sergeant at Arms. One theory holds that the appointment was a scheme concocted by the King to extend his power over the legislature. Another suggests that the officer was requested so that the legislators could enforce parliamentary privilege and have the Sergeant exercise royal authority through the instructions of the Speaker. Yet another says that since Parliament met at the King’s home, the Palace at Westminster, in its early days, His Majesty originally loaned some Sergeants out as door-keepers to the Parliamentary meetings.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

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

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

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

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