Jimmy Carter Breaks a Record

(Warning: useless political data geekery below.)

Today, former president Jimmy Carter has reached a milestone: he is now the longest-retired president in U.S. history. In other words, he has lived longer after leaving the presidency than any other U.S. president. He has been “ex-president Jimmy Carter” for 11,554 days: that’s about 31 years and 7 1/2 months.

How long has he been an ex-president? When Jimmy Carter left office on January 20, 1981, there was no MTV. There was no IBM PC. Lady Diana Spencer was not yet the Princess of Wales. Nobody had heard of AIDS. Since Carter left office, children have been born and have grown up to have children of their own. The Reagan era, the Clinton era, and two Bushes have come and gone.

Previously, the longest-retired president was Herbert Hoover. Hoover left office on March 4, 1933, and on July 5, 1958, he became the longest-retired president in U.S. history, surpassing John Adams. Hoover died on October 20, 1964, having lived 11,553 days as an ex-president:

Yesterday, Carter tied Hoover’s record, and today he surpasses it.

The day after Carter left office — after a quick stop home in Plains, Georgia — he flew to Germany to greet the just-released Iranian hostages.

Four days ago, he spoke via video to the Democratic National Convention to endorse President Obama’s re-election.

It’s been a long ex-presidency. He turns 88 in a few weeks. Longer may he live.

Baby Tech

Last weekend Matt and I were using FaceTime to video chat with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my niece. Matt and I were in front of my iMac, so we were stationary, but my brother was using his iPad, and as he walked around the room, I watched my sister-in-law and my niece playing together. It was just like being there. I marveled that we were having this video conversation. I’m still amazed that this technology exists, something that used to seem straight out of Dick Tracy.

At one point my niece was watching me and Matt. She’s not yet two years old, and I wondered: can she comprehend this? Does she realize that we’re interacting with her, or does she think she’s watching us on TV? Or does she think we’re somehow inside the device? Is she confused by any of this?

And then I realized that she had no problem understanding that she was interacting with us. She didn’t even think about it. After all, when I was little, I watched TV and I didn’t think there were little people inside the box; I just knew that I was watching something on the TV screen. I didn’t think it was weird; I didn’t even question it. I just accepted it as part of the world.

So I’m realizing that my niece is growing up in a world where iPads and video chats and swiping your finger across a glass screen to make things happen is just the norm. To me, it’s this super cool thing that tells me we’re finally living in the future. But to her, it’s just the way the world is and always has been. She’ll grow up in a world where this technology has always existed.

What this shows me is that human beings are amazingly adaptable. In one sense, our natural habitat is the savannah, or the forest; I still feel some primeval connection to the earth when I walk through a tree-filled park. And yet I can totally take something like television, or flying in a big metal tube, or living in a big city, for granted.

If you traveled back in time, say, 10,000 years, and you kidnapped a pregnant woman and brought her back to 2011, and the woman gave birth, the mother would probably remain terrified by everything around her. But her child would grow up totally accustomed to life in the 21st century. Like my niece, this time-traveling ancient child would take iPads for granted.

The human genome is pretty close to what it was several milliennia ago. We are endlessly adaptable. It’s just so bizarre to me.

Prince Charles Breaks Record

Somewhat related to my previous post:

This is somewhat late, but a month and a half ago, on April 20, Prince Charles became the longest-serving heir to the throne in British history.

The prince, 62, has broken the record set by his great-great-grandfather, Edward VII, having waited as of to take over from the Queen for 59 years, two months and 14 days, Clarence House said.

Charles became heir apparent at the age of three when his mother, Princess Elizabeth, acceded to the throne on 6 February 1952. He was nine when he was given the title Prince of Wales.

Edward VII was born the heir apparent on 9 November 1841 as his mother, Queen Victoria, was already on the throne. He became king when she died on 22 January 1901, having waited 59 years, two months and 13 days.

I feel kind of bad for Charles.

(Here’s the list of people who have been first in line to the British throne.)

Mad Men and Color TV

On Mad Men, whenever someone is watching TV, the TV screen the character is watching is in black and white. Lately I’ve been wondering: when are we going to start to see characters watch color TV on the show?

On the show right now, it’s the late summer of 1965, which is around the time that color TV really started to take off.

According to Wikipedia, the 1964-65 TV season was the first full season in which NBC broadcast more than 50% of its schedule in color, but most of the shows on ABC and CBS were still in black and white. The 1965-66 season — which Mad Men is about to enter, since the most recent episode took place in August 1965 — was the first TV season in which a majority of prime time shows were in color. By the start of the 1966-67 season, practically every prime time show was in color. Those of us who first experienced the classic 1960s sitcoms through reruns know that weird feeling when you’d somehow run across an early black-and-white episode of Gilligan’s Island or Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie; each of those shows began in black and white and transitioned to color after its first or second season.

So will we see color TVs on Mad Men soon? Well, even though most programs were in color by the fall of 1965, by 1966 fewer than 10 percent of homes had color TV sets (that chart is located here). It wasn’t until 1972 that a majority of homes had them. But this is Mad Men, where some of the characters are rich corporate types — and Harry Crane is in charge of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s TV advertising division, so maybe we’ll see a color TV in his office. That would be neat.

(Update: here’s an in-depth article on “the color revolution of 1965.”)

How I Remember Which Amendment is Which

There are 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The first ten are the Bill of Rights. The Eleventh involved lawsuits against states; the Twelfth revised the procedure for electing presidents and vice-presidents after the original system turned out not to work too well.

The Thirteen through Fifteenth are the post-Civil-War amendments, and they’re generally easy to remember. The Thirteenth abolished slavery; the Fourteenth is a grab bag about citizenship and equal protection; the Fifteenth purported to prohibit the denial of the right to vote based on race.

The amendments since the Fifteenth are hard to keep straight. Here’s how I remember most of them:

SiXteenth Amendment — income taX

SEventeeth Amendment — direct election of SEnators

18th Amendment — Prohibition (many people think the drinking age should be 18)

Nineteenth Amendment — women’s suffrage (not sure how to remember this one: “feminineteenth”? the push for women’s suffrage began in the 19th century?)

20th Amendment — sets Inauguration Day as January 20

21st Amendment – repealed Prohibition — drinking age is 21

22nd Amendment — limits president to two terms (22 has two twos)

23rd Amendment — gives D.C. representation in the Electoral College. Not sure how to remember this one.

24th Amendment — bans poll taxes. Not sure how to remember this one either.

25th Amendment — codifies the process for presidential succession. To be honest, I only remember this one because there’s a “West Wing” episode called “Twenty Five,” where Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman) temporarily becomes president after Zoe Bartlett is kidnapped.

26th Amendment — lowers the voting age to 18. I remember this one by process of elimination, because there’s only one left:

27th Amendment — restricts congressional pay increases; got a lot of publicity when it became law in 1992 because of its unusual story.

Network Evening News Schedules

Every weeknight, Matt and I TiVo “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.” Just more evidence that we are 36 going on 70. We watch it during dinner or after we get home from whatever we’ve been doing that evening.

For the last two decades, the three network evening news broadcasts have all aired at 6:30 p.m. But when I was a kid, they all aired at 7:00. At least in the New York City area they did — I don’t know about the rest of the country. But even though they aired at 7:00, they still taped at 6:30, so perhaps they aired live at 6:30 in most other parts of the country. Perhaps people ate dinner earlier outside of the New York area.

I remember being surprised when the national news broadcasts first moved to 6:30. Six-thirty seemed too early for a nationwide network broadcast. Network primetime is from 8:00 to 11:00, and to me there seemed to be something more prestigious about airing at 7:00 instead of 6:30.

A couple of years ago I did some research to find out exactly when the three networks moved their news broadcasts — in the New York area, anyway — from 7:00 to 6:30. It turns out they didn’t all do it at the same time.

“ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” was the first to move from 7:00 to 6:30. It moved on December 15, 1986.

“The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” was next. It moved on September 5, 1988.

Last was “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw,” which moved on September 9, 1991.

So for the last 19 years, the three shows have gone head-to-head-to-head at 6:30 instead of 7:00. And instead of Dan, Tom and Peter, it’s Katie, Brian and Diane.

The nightly news is largely irrelevant now. By the time I watch it I already know what’s happened that day. But it’s a nice evening ritual.

(And no, I can’t imagine this post will be interesting to everyone, but hopefully it will help random Googlers out there who are looking for this info.)


I’ve been tending my inner geek lately. First, I’ve been teaching myself Python. Second, I’ve been reading Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter.

This is my third attempt at reading this book. The first time, in college, I got less than 100 pages into it before giving up. The second time, nine years ago, I got more than halfway through, but then I got bored with it, laying it aside one day and never picking it up again. This time, I’m determined to finish it, and I’ve gotten further than my last two tries, so things look promising. I don’t know how to describe this book: it’s about math, logic, computers, consciousness, intelligence, thinking, structure. It’s rough going at times, but tons of fun to read.

When I was a kid, I thought there was a clear line between math & science people, who were left-brained, and language arts & social studies people, who were right-brained. It was hard to fit myself into just one of these categories, because I loved math, but I also liked reading and history. (I wasn’t big on science.) And language arts was both left- and right-brained: alphabetizing and spelling and grammar were very rule-based and easy to get right, but reading comprehension and literature appreciation and creative writing were squishy and murky, and it was harder to come up with the right answer all the time.

I decided I was more of a math/computer guy. I loved math, and I took a computer class in elementary school and learned BASIC. For my ninth birthday in 1982, my parents got me my very first computer: a TI-99/4A, from Texas Instruments. (Pitched by Bill Cosby!) We hooked it up to a small TV in my bedroom (it didn’t come with a monitor), and I used to sit at the keyboard, typing in long programs in BASIC, line by line, from an open computer magazine in my lap. Or playing Munch-Man or Parsec or Adventure.

But in middle school or high school, something changed. I evolved from a math/computer-type person into something more romantic. I was still great at math, but I loved theater, I loved history, I loved to read, I enjoyed experiencing my emotions and thinking about the way I felt. People and words and ideas seemed more interesting than numbers. I didn’t start dressing in black or quoting Byron or anything like that. But I feel like I became irresponsible: I didn’t do as well on my college applications as I would have liked, and I became pre-med in college only to drop it for a history major after three semesters, trading a certain future for a murkier one. I didn’t really know what I wanted.

But now I’m delving back into computer programming and learning about number theory and logic, and I feel like a kid again. It’s sheer pleasure. I’m enjoying it for the same reason I love puzzles: it’s disconnected from anything morally weighty, unlike history. It’s timeless. It doesn’t go out of date. It’s just… fun.

I’ve always been intrigued by people who defy categorization, who transcend stereotypes: nerds who are secretly cool, cool people who are secretly nerds, romantic math geeks, high-achieving students who love watching TV. This is very much a Disney TV-movie way of looking at things, but I don’t care. I’m intrigued by people who are well-rounded.

Is it any wonder that my partner is a computer-programming musical-theater-loving TV afficionado with a master’s degree in library science?

That’s not the only reason why I love him, but I’m sure it’s part of it.

On with Python and Gödel and Escher and Bach.

Stevens to Retire; Appoint a Woman!

So, there it is… Justice Stevens is retiring at the end of this term, the day after the Supreme Court begins its summer recess.

First, some geekery. His retirement date means that he’ll just miss becoming the second-longest serving justice in Supreme Court history, as I speculated last fall, since the Court will most likely recess on June 28. Even if the Court recesses on July 1 — which is not likely and might happen only if there are too many decisions to announce at the end of the term — Stevens would retire on July 2, and thus tie Stephen Field as the second-longest serving justice. Right now Stevens ranks fourth; 41 days from now he’ll surpass the legendary John Marshall to become third.

I’m sure he doesn’t care about any of that stuff, though. Only geeks like me do.

Now the speculation begins on a successor. And I really, really want Obama to nominate another woman.

It’s ridiculous that in the year 2010, only two of the nine justices are women. Bush tried to nominate a woman to replace O’Connor — Harriet Miers — but when her nomination failed, he nominated Sam Alito, leaving Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the only woman on the Court. Obama did the right thing in choosing a woman to replace Souter, and Stevens’s replacement should be a woman as well.

Demographics should be secondary to a Supreme Court nomination, but when a president is looking for someone of a particular ideology or judicial temperament, there are usually several people to choose from, so he has the leeway to choose another woman. Fortunately, it looks like the name with the most buzz for the last couple of months has been Solicitor General Elena Kagan. Several weeks ago, SCOTUSblog profiled her, as well as a few other contenders, and considered her the front runner.

But this is interesting — if she were nominated and confirmed, the Supreme Court would have six Catholics and three Jews. Would fundamentalist Protestants be annoyed at having no representation? After all, to quote that link, “it’s not like having devout Catholics on the bench is a substitute for having a couple of Protestants, any more than having a Clarence Thomas on the bench is the same as having an African-American.”

The Supreme Court is problematic today — a small group of nine people can enact major change in this country, for better or for worse. Perhaps a larger court would be better, and not just because it would dilute the identity politics somewhat. (The Constitution doesn’t say there have to be nine justices — all it takes is an act of Congress, although the last time a president tried to make that happen, it didn’t work out.)

Of course, even in a larger body — the current United States Senate — only 17 out of 100 members are women. But given the infrequency with which the Supreme Court membership turns over, change comes even more slowly to that body.

Even three out of nine justices would be too few women on the Court. But it would help redress a great annoyance.