March 29 – Happy Birthday, John Tyler

Posted on March 29, 2017

He was never elected as President of the United States, but he served almost a full term as such.

He was a Vice President (briefly), but he didn't have a Vice President!
Back in 1840, the United States was still a relatively young nation, and political parties and political traditions weren't as well established back then.

At the time, the Whigs were the more elite - the industrialists and big-business guys who wanted a strong federal government. The Democrats (let's call them Jacksonian Democrats so you won't get them mixed up in your mind with today's Democratic Party) were in favor of states' rights and considered themselves the party of the common man, the little guy, the farmer. (Remember, when I use the words "man" and "guy" when discussing politics in the 1800s, WOMEN COULDN'T VOTE!)

In the 1840 election, William Henry Harrison was a war hero and a Whig. The Whig Party was fairly new, having only participated in one other presidential election, in 1836. Apparently, the Whigs didn't give too much thought to who Harrison's running mate would be. Typically, especially then, political parties would chose northern VP candidates to accompany southern presidential candidates, and vice versa, to "balance out" the ticket, but the Vice President had few official powers and duties. And at this point, no president had ever NOT served his full term. 

So, when the running mate for Ohio resident Harrison became Virginia resident John Tyler, it might have been mostly a "balance the ticket" sort of deal. Or maybe it was because Harrison's war name was "Old Tippecanoe," and folks were already looking forward to a catchy election slogan of "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!"

Running against Harrison was incumbent President Martin Van Buren. He was a Jackson Democrat whose 1936 running mate, Richard M. Johnson, served as Vice President. But - strangely, by today's standards - in the 1840 election, apparently Van Buren had no running mate! 

Also strangely-by-today's-standards, back then, political traditions dictated that Van Buren didn't personally campaign. The party campaigned for him, but Van Buren maintained his presidential dignity. I'm not sure whether or not candidates who weren't president became personally involved with their own campaigns.

The popular vote was fairly close, but Old Tippecanoe smushed Van Buren in the electoral college, 234 to 60. But here is a case when winning short-term was losing long-term:

William Henry Harrison served the shortest presidential term in history because he died just 31 days after being inaugurated. He died of complications from pneumonia. (The story that he died because he spoke too long at his inauguration, in bad weather, was the way people thought about illness at the time, but since Harrison's illness didn't arise until three weeks after the inauguration, we now know that the two events were not cause-and-effect.)

John Tyler, the Vice President, became president. This was the first time that a U.S. President died in office, and the line of succession we have now wasn't put into place until 1947 (and confirmed in the 1960s with the 25th Amendment). I was surprised to read that Tyler served as president for almost four years without nominating and gaining confirmation for a new Vice President.

That wouldn't happen today, thanks to the Vice Presidential succession portion of the 25th Amendment. 

Tyler had been a Democrat, not a Whig, for most of his life - but a Jeffersonian Democrat, not a Jackson Democrat. He believed in limited federal power. Although many people thought that Tyler should have been a "caretaker" president, acting as he knew that Harrison would've acted and going along with Harrison's already-established practices. (Harrison discussed issues with his Cabinet and made policy with a majority vote, for example.) 

But Tyler did not do this - he immediate informed his Cabinet that he would not be dictated to by them, and he went on to say, "I, as president, shall be responsible for my administration. I hope to have your hearty co-operation in carrying out its measures. So long as you see fit to do this, I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted."

Most of the Cabinet resigned, pretty pronto.

Tyler was sometimes mocked as "His Accidency," and some critics never accepted Tyler as a legitimate president.

And the Whigs who were thrilled with Harrison's victory in the election were soon dismayed by Tyler's actions, because the latter thought that many parts of the Whig Party's platform were unconstitutional, and he vetoed several of his own party's bills. He became the first president to have his veto overridden by Congress, and the Whigs "expelled" Tyler from the party before the end of the year 1841.

As a man basically without a party, during his almost four years as president, Tyler cobbled together some allies to form a third party, and in 1844 he ran for his first elected term (and second actual term). He ended up dropping out of the race a few months before the election, and he endorsed the Democratic Party nominee, Jame K. Polk, who went on to win.

Tyler has been praised by some historians, but has mostly been criticized by historians. He certainly is one of the least known or recognized U.S. Presidents.

By the way, the Whig Party only won one other presidential election, Zachary Taylor in 1848. By the mid 1850s, the party was basically defunct.

So, in a way, the 1840 election victory for Harrison, Tyler, and the Whigs was the prelude to a story of loss. Harrison soon lost his life, Tyler exerted himself and his own philosophy and ideas as president but ended up an obscure and little-regarded figure, and the Whigs lost one out of only two chances to enact their platform.

Political parties throughout U.S. history

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March 28 – Gyroscopes Are the Answer! (What's the question?)

Posted on March 28, 2017

"What did Robert Goddard successfully use on this date in 1935 to control a rocket?"

Now we think of Robert Goddard as the one who ushered in the Space Age, because this American engineer and physicist is the guy who built the world's first liquid-fueled rocket.

During his life, the press sometimes ridiculed his ideas, and most of the public didn't know him or applaud him. But NOW we know he was a pioneer, one of the founders of modern rocketry.

Years ago I wrote about Goddard Day (March 16), the anniversary of Goddard's first successful launch in 1926. Today's anniversary occurred nearly a decade later, as Goddard tried to figure out a guidance system that would keep a rocket pointing vertically longer, and then curve into a horizontal flight. This flight reached a then-record 4,800 feet of altitude before roaring off into a horizontal flight.

His answer was a gyroscope mounted on gimbals to electrically control steering vanes that are located in the exhaust.

A what-a-scope mounted on whatsits? Electrically controlling what in what?

A gyroscope is a sort of toplike toy or device with a wheel or disk mounted so that it can spin around an axis - but the axis can change direction. Notice that the axis is not affected by the tilting of the mounting. That's what makes a gyroscope perfect for maintaining the planned direction in a guidance system.

Goddard's gyroscope moved the vanes positioned to divert or change direction of a portion of the exhaust rushing past them during the rocket's flight.

Above, the exhaust rushing out of the
rocket's nozzle.
Below, the movable steering vanes
near the rocket's nozzle.

To find out more...check out this or this.

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March 27 – Happy Birthday, Ram Charan!

Posted on March 27, 2017

Ram Charan talked to college students a few days ago. This accomplished actor / dancer / producer / entrepreneur told the students that he loved being a college student - but that he hoped they would all set goals at an early age, and pursue them with dedication.

Charan is Indian, and he works in "Tollywood" - that is, he is in the business of making films in the Teluga language. (Teluga is an official language in several different states in India and is the primary language in those states and among sizable minorities in other locations.)

Charan has won loads of awards and is one of the highest paid actors in Tollywood, and he started his own production company.

I have heard several times from Asian American students what is apparently commonly acknowledged: Asian men, including Asian American men, are one of the least and worst represented groups in Hollywood. In other words - they are mostly absent, and even when they are present, they are usually minor roles, stereotypes, and negative (bad / evil / unpleasant) characters. They are rarely complex, funny, or romantic "leading men."

One of my husband's high school friends made a wonderful living playing mostly bad guys in movies and TV shows, but I'm happy that other movie-making centers like Bollywood and Tollywood exist.

To learn more about Asian men in Hollywood, you could watch the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen on Amazon video. Of course, being a decade old, the documentary was filmed before all these great TV characters were created:

Tim Kang in The Mentalist - a regular but not leading character, with a bit of the inscrutable stereotype but certainly some nuance and complexity as the show continued for seven seasons

John Cho in Selfie - the romantic lead who is comic gold - but the series was cancelled WAY-way-way too soon

John Cho in Flash Forward and Go On - Cho is also great in minor roles!

Daniel Dae Kim in Hawaii Five-O - a regular in an ensemble cast, Kim plays the action-hero lead and the romantic lead in some story lines and has a ton of complexity

Danny Pudi in Community and Powerless - I loved-loved-loved Pudi's extremely funny, unexpected, and complex character in Community

Masi Oka in Heroes and Hawaii Five-O - one of the most memorable characters in almost any cast, Oka became a breakout character in Heroes

Jon Foo in Rush Hour - a bit stereotypical, in that Foo plays Jackie Chan's original movie character / martial arts expert - but a starring role

Aziz Ansari in Master of None (if it were a movie, it would have an R rating) - this is so funny AND Ansari created the series as well as stars in it

Randall Park in Fresh Off the Boat - a very funny major character in a show that some think misrepresents "the Asian American experience" but that also portrays one small slice of the Asian American experience and that can therefore start valuable conversations

Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory - a funny and quirky main character on a popular show

Dev Patel in Newsroom - a very minor character, but played with passion

Kal Penn in House and Designated Survivor - Penn is good at pointing out the racism and stereotyping in Hollywood, as well as at playing even minor roles with nuance

Alex Mallari, Jr., in Dark Matter - again, an ensemble cast; again, a martial-arts specialist

I am really happy that things are getting better for Asian and Asian American (and British Asian) men in Hollywood... More diverse characters, more starring roles, more comedy and romance as well as martial arts and action-adventure, and - crucially - at least a little bit more voice in plots, characters, and how the characters are played.

Onward and upward!

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Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's birthday  

Quirky Country Music Song Titles Day

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