What Does a U.S. Ambassador Really Do?

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In the movies, U.S. ambassadors often appear to come to the aid of jailed foreigners in inhospitable prisons. In the press, they’ve been vilified for not spending all of their time in the country they’ve been assigned to represent or for not being fluent in the language. Some critics have even referred to their appointment as a kind of payola scheme, with positions being awarded in exchange for campaign contributions to the sitting president.

Ambassadors for the United States seem to wear a variety of faces, but which of them is accurate?

“It varies widely from country to country,” Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and current professor of international affairs at Penn State University, tells Mental Floss. “France will be very different from Russia. But generally, ambassadors have two functions, one internal and one external.”

The internal function is managing the U.S. embassy itself and all of its employees, which can number from one to 1000 and involve several representatives from the Treasury Department, the CIA, and other government branches. The external function is dealing with the native government, missionaries, and local press in representing the President of the United States.

“You explain what Washington is thinking,” Jett explains, “and explain to Washington what the other government is thinking. You have a lot of people wanting a lot of your time.”

For Jett, that meant getting involved in Mozambique’s highly volatile civil war that resulted in the country's first free and democratic election in 1994. He had to live up to his diplomat label, encouraging democracy while being careful not to agitate the sitting government with criticism as the press swarmed around him.

On one occasion in Peru, Jett arrived for a social engagement and left early. A half-hour later, terrorists from the country's Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed the event and kept hostages—including several of Jett's embassy employees—for 126 days.

Those incidents cast a long shadow over the stereotype that ambassadors do little but arrange parties and entertain foreign dignitaries. “The Middle East is hard,” Jett says. “Pakistan, places like that.” Depending on the conditions of the territory in question, ambassadors may even be eligible for danger pay on top of their regular salary. “It can be as little as 5 percent [extra] or up to 40 percent. If you’re going into a place with malaria or what’s called a 'hardship post'—a place with a threat of terrorism—you’ll be paid more than if you were going to the Caribbean.”

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Jett was a career foreign affairs officer, rising through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat and later a Senior Director of African Affairs before securing a post as an ambassador, the top-ranking diplomat. Traditionally, career employees will make up roughly 70 percent of the 180-odd ambassador posts at any given time, with the remaining 30 percent filled by political appointees who contributed to a presidential campaign or have another personal connection to the president.

While these individuals typically get assigned low-risk posts in cushy, tourist-friendly places like Europe or the Caribbean and the standard free lodging, there’s still opportunity for them to risk embarrassment. Mark Austad, Ronald Reagan’s appointee to Norway, was fired for overt womanizing; other appointees quizzed by the Senate before their official hiring have expressed only minimal fluency in the requisite foreign language. In one instance, one wannabe Ambassador to Argentina admitted he had never actually been to the country.

The argument for such reciprocation is that donors are typically wealthy and can afford to bolster weak Congressional spending when it comes to an embassy’s "representational entertaining"—the bureaucratic term for "lavish parties." But Jett feels that it’s a poor excuse for a tired and unfair system. “We need capable, competent people who speak the language and can carry out the job, regardless of whether they’re rich,” he says.

Ambassadors typically resign following a new president taking over the Oval Office. Appointees typically slip back into the private sector, while career diplomats either return to Washington or consider another ambassadorship.

As for those dramatic interventions on behalf of jailed Americans: Don’t expect to see Jett or his peers stage a spirited rally on your behalf.

 “We don’t have the ability to bring that kind of pressure,” he says. “You’re subject to the laws of that area. We can get you the names of some lawyers. Maybe some better food. That's about it.”

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What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

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What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

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What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

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