Right Now in Stuff You Missed in History Class

It's a bird ... it's a plane ... No -- It's a distraction from the economy! Here at HowStuffWorks.com, one of our all-time favorite topics is superheroes. That's why I jumped at the chance to blog about it when I ran across this CNN piece, which discusses how the first superheroes were born out of the Great Depression. At the tail end of the Depression (and as war was starting in Europe), Americans created such larger-than-life characters as Superman and Batman. In Los Angeles, the Skirball Cultural Center is holding a new exhibit of these classic superheroes. Curators of the exhibit say that the characters were a form of escapism for a public who was losing faith in the American Dream. A similar thing was already happening in America's movies at the time. Throughout the Depression era, Hollywood produced lavish flicks that historians often chalk up to "escapism" to distract from the tough economic times.

As a native Marylander, I've had many discussions with friends about whether we can call it a Southern state. You could say it's in "Dixie," which (according to one historical interpretation from this Civil War fact book) means south of the Mason-Dixon Line. One could also argue that because it fought for the North in the Civil War, Maryland should be considered a Northern state. However, we can't forget that Maryland was a slave state that was chock full of Southern sympathizers during the war. For evidence, just look up the official state song that remains on the books. You might be surprised (or perhaps offended) at the lyrics. According to this NPR story, a group of active fourth-graders were certainly offended when Linda Tuck, a school library "media specialist," led their study and discussion of the song. After the children wrote letters in protest, a bill is in the works to change the lyrics.

Although moviegoers love period pieces, filmmakers are notorious for getting the details wrong. Tune in as our resident history buffs take a look at historically inaccurate movies -- from Pocahontas to The Bridge on the River Kwai -- in this podcast from

Recently, Jane and I dedicated a podcast to the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi ruled over ancient Babylon, and he had some pretty strict laws. And there were a lot of them. You can get the full story in Jane's article, titled, "What's so important about the Code of Hammurabi?" As Jane explains, the code is one of the most "well-preserved" and "comprehensive" sets of "ancient laws in existence." Never heard of the Code of Hammurabi? Well, if you've heard the expression, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," you've got the basic idea. As much as history scholars tout the importance of the code, I wondered (aloud, in the podcast) whether it's something that law students still actively study. In short, is the code still relevant? Or can we learn something from it that's applicable to codes of conduct today?

How ecstatic am I that another opportunity to discuss Basque shepherds has presented itself? The New York Times reported this week on one of the hottest occurrences in Virginia City, Nev. -- an annual mountain oyster fryfest that locals have dubbed "the testicle festival." I'm sure you've heard of mountain oysters before. They're testicles from freshly gelded livestock, particularly young sheep and cows. At the testicle festival (formally named the International Comstock Mountain Oyster Fry), the specialty is served up several different ways. Writer Patricia Leigh Brown relates that they're usually fried in cornmeal but can also be served in eggs and sushi or topped with bordelaise sauce.

Yesterday, the Civil War Preservation Trust released this year's list of 10 most endangered historical sites that hosted battles during the American Civil War. Most notable among the 10 sites is Gettysburg, Pa. According to the Associated Press, actor Richard Dreyfus came to Washington, D.C., yesterday to show his support for efforts to protect these historical sites. So what's threatening these lands? As for Gettysburg, the encroaching commercial development (such as hotels) is to blame, reports a Washington Post blog. Same goes for a site in Spring Hill, Tenn. For others, companies are seeking to build facilities on the land. For a few, the natural elements are to blame, such as hurricane damage and soil erosion. As for the Wilderness, Va., site, the preservationists are bracing to fight plans for a proposed Wal-Mart. In today's troubled economy, it must be getting harder for preservationist societies to plead their cause.

Even weary New York Times Business readers must've feasted their eyes on the photos that ran with "Tudormania" in the Style section yesterday. Rich red velvet and golden brocades of the Tudor era just beg to be reinvented for our dismal modern times...and Dolce & Gabbana has taken the hint. Writer Ruth La Ferla asks why this distinctive style is being revived. Kenneth Jurkiewicz, an associate professor from Central Michigan U's School of Broadcasting and Cinematic Arts, comments, "There was this placid formality that covered Byzantine machinations beneath the surface." (For those of us who don't speak gorgeous prose fluently, that translates, "Fancy clothes disguised a complex and sneaky government.") La Ferla piqued my interest in Tudor style -- specifically, Henry VIII's raiment.

I wrote last month about the idea of a president's "first 100 days" in office and how it all originated with FDR. Although I touched on the comparisons between FDR and Obama, I think this is worth another look considering all the buzz it's been generating lately. Two news stories from this week have brought the comparisons up again. On Monday, Slate had a piece on Obama's plans to possibly hold a series of short, televised speeches addressing the nation about the state of the economy. Writer John Dickerson draws comparisons between this and FDR's fireside chats and even finds an FDR quote from these chats that exactly reflects Obama's rhetoric about the economy. The other story has to do with Obama's VP, Joe Biden, who gave a speech at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser on Monday in which he said the problems we face today are more complicated than the Great Depression.

The Code of Hammurabi is one of humanity's earliest, most intact code of laws. Historians continue to discuss the effects and importance of this code today. Listen in and learn more about the Code of Hammurabi in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

I'm using St. Patrick's Day as an excuse to share with you one of my fondest, semi-Irish dreams: to become a shepherd. I realized my calling about two months ago. It all adds up: I love sheep, I love verdant fields and I love spending time with my dog. Yesterday, I caught a Today Show segment on sheep herding in Ireland. According to the shepherd Meredith and Al interviewed, "If it's in you, it's in you." Clearly, it's in me. But after a cursory search on theoutdoorjob.com, I was crushed to learn there's nothing available in Ireland for a person with my skill set. I blame the recession.

If you listened to the podcast Candace and I did a few months ago on the Vikings, you know that they weren't exactly the nicest neighbors. Whether they ran out of resources on their own land or they just got greedy, they would go i viking to pillage nearby civilizations. Because they were so good at building ships and at warfare in general, their attacks were swift, efficient and devastating. However, according to last week's article from the Telegraph, evidence surfacing recently has revealed a kinder, gentler Viking for the history books. Oh sure, they still did all that vicious pillaging, but this didn't last very long, according to Dr. Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, a senior lecturer at Cambridge. When the Vikings settled down in the territory they conquered, they peacefully integrated themselves into the culture. Mhaonaigh claims both sides benefited from this assimilation.

About a year ago, I had the pleasure of editing an article on body farms written by Tom Scheve. In it, Tom explains in nitty-gritty detail what happens to your body after you die. So while I'm prepared for the ghastly visual and olfactory display of a days-old corpse (thanks, Tom!), our medieval ancestors were not. A recent story out of Rome reports that Italians in the throes of a 16th-century plague were horrified by mass graves of bloated bodies leaking blood from their mouths. What's more, while their faces were covered with shrouds, they'd mysteriously worn holes through the portion of cloth that covered their mouths. According to Reuters, modern science has a simple explanation for holey shrouds: gas and bacteria in the corpses' mouths were strong enough to eat through the cloth. But for gravediggers who uncovered mass graves to deposit more plague victims,

It's easy to look back on the follies of the past and turn up our noses. We would have known that bloodletting was a bad idea. We would have known that phrenology was a crock. One only need glance over the numerous instances of medical quackery throughout history to get that feeling of superiority that inevitably comes with hindsight. And more than anything else, alchemy stands as the ultimate example of wrongheaded scientific theories that we now consider laughable. But, some experts have stopped laughing. According to Stephen Heuser's piece from Boston.com yesterday, the academic world is starting to reconsider alchemy in a more respectful light. No, these experts don't think, as the alchemists did, that we can turn base metals into precious metals. They merely want to give credit where it's due. They want to restore alchemy as having an important role in the history of science.

50 million people died over the course of World War II, and historians often cite it as the bloodiest war in human history. Tune in to learn more about World War II in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

A few weeks ago, podcast listener Rob wrote to us asking if we could address a rumor he heard about why Catholics are banned from meat on Fridays during Lent, but can chow down on all the fish they want. What he heard was that the pope who originally instituted the fish exception had family connections to the fishing industry, and that he did this to boost business. Actually, Rob, I've heard the same thing. In fact, a religion teacher I had in Catholic school told us a similar story as if it were known fact. So, is it? This calls for a good, old-fashioned fact-or-fiction investigation. For one, if the purpose of fish exception was to help the fishing industry, it probably succeeded with flying colors. Originally, Catholics abstained from meat not only during Lenten Fridays, but Fridays throughout the year.

On Fridays, Jane and I address questions from our SYMHC listeners. I've had an e-mail from Hannah tucked away, and I'm thrilled to finally respond. Hannah asked whether Dada was really an antiwar movement. There are dissertations about this topic, but I'll attempt to do it justice in 300 words. In short, yes: Dada was an antiwar movement. Can art can be created independently of the time and political, economic and social conditions in which it's conceived? Smithsonian Magazine says that the word "Dada" can be translated as 'yes, yes' (Rumanian) 'rocking/hobby horse' (French) and loosely interpreted as "foolish naïveté" (German). The movement began in neutral Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire around 1916. According to the National Gallery of Art, this café was a haven for European artists. It was a safe place to respond to the seemingly nonsensical death toll that World War I was incurring.

And it only takes one. Germany is issuing a warrant for a retired autoworker who lives in Ohio, says the Washington Post. John Demjanjuk, who is 88 years old, is charged with being an accessory to the murder of 29,000 people. Allegedly, Demjanjuk was a Nazi guard, or wachmann, at Sobibor, a Jewish concentration camp, during the Holocaust. This doesn't come as a huge surprise, however, as Demjanjuk has been battling the courts for 30 years to keep from being punished for his alleged atrocities. Demjanjuk came to the United States after the war and became a naturalized citizen. According to Timothy McCormack in "The Law of War Crimes," by the late '70s, authorities began proceedings to revoke this citizenship after evidence arose that he was a Nazi at a concentration camp during the war and failed to mention this in his application.

In court today, Bernard Madoff admitted, "As the years went by, I realized this day, and my arrest, would inevitably come." The New York Times reports that during a 75-minute hearing, Madoff apologized and confessed how "sorry and ashamed" he is for swindling nearly $65 billion out of his investors over the course of 20 years. Some of Madoff's victims appeared in court; it's still undetermined whether they'll get any of their investments back. Judge Denny Chin even had to ask the guilty-pleading Madoff to speak louder. Madoff even had to sip water to steady himself. And it's no wonder why he was having trouble holding it together. It seems Madoff thought he could make a pretty penny and then bow out of the Ponzi scheme. "I believed it would end shortly," he said. Interesting choice of words. It's almost like he doesn't believe he was in control of it.

Have you seen the new logos the Obama administration commissioned for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (Tiger)? According to NYTimes.com The Moment Blog, a few design firms collaborated to produce them, one of which (Mode Project) had a hand in designing Obama's campaign sl"O"gan. Mode Project's creative director Steve Juras commented that designing the ARRA logo was an interesting feat because it mustn't seem "governmental," but it must convey "a visible sign of progress" in the fields of energy, health care and education. And the team couldn't get too creative with the Tiger logo because the administration had its own idea: Make it look like a tiger! But just how grrrrrrreat are these logos? President Obama explained, "These emblems are symbols of our commitment to you, the American people" and that they denote tax dollars being spent "wisely."

This week, scholars unveiled what they believe to be the only authentic portrait of Shakespeare done in his lifetime, called the Cobbe portrait, according to our friends over at Discovery News. So wait, if this is true, what are all those pictures that adorn the book covers of his plays? It took a little digging to unravel the story of Shakespeare's likeness throughout the centuries. The portraits of Shakespeare we're familiar with aren't exactly fakes, but they were made after the playwright died in 1616. The most famous of these is the engraving that appears on the First Folio of his plays, which dates back to 1623. There's also a bust that sits in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford made sometime between his death and 1623. The scholar touting the authenticity of the Cobbe painting called them both "dull" compared to this new find, according the the New York Times.