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Why Are Flags Flown at Half-Staff in Times of Mourning?

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XINHUA/LANDOV

The White House flag is flying at half-staff to mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela. This has become a well-recognized symbol of national grieving, but where did the tradition originate, and how does the decision to lower the flag work?

How did the tradition of flying the flag at half-staff get started?
It's tough to say, but the oldest commonly accepted reference to a half-staff flag dates back to 1612, when the captain of the British ship Heart's Ease died on a journey to Canada. When the ship returned to London, it was flying its flag at half-mast to honor the departed captain.

Why would these sailors lower their flag to honor their departed captain?
According to one line of scholarly thinking, by lowering the Union Jack, the sailors were making room for the invisible flag of Death. This explanation jibes with the British tradition of flying a "half-staff" flag exactly one flag's width lower than its normal position to underscore that Death's flag is flapping above it.

How long is the flag flown at half-staff in the United States?
It depends on whom the nation is mourning. Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 7 of the United States Code outlines strict guidelines for how long the flag is flown at half-staff following the deaths of various members of the government.

The death of a current or former president lowers the flag for 30 days, while the current vice president, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Speaker of the House receive 10 days of half-staff flying following their deaths.

Flags fly at half-staff from the day of death until the date of interment for cabinet secretaries, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, former vice presidents, and the governors of states. The death of a current member of Congress lowers the flag to half-staff on the day of death and following day.

Does the President have any leeway when he's making these orders?
Yes, the President can make an executive order lowering the flag to half-staff to honor the passing of other important figures or tragic events. For example, President George W. Bush ordered the flags flown at half-staff until the interment of Pope John Paul II. For Mandela, the flags will remain at half-staff until sunset on December 9.

With national tragedies, the length of time seems to be a bit more arbitrary. Following the September 11th attacks, Bush ordered the flag be flown at half-staff until September 16, 2001. The Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunamis in 2004 prompted flags to be flown at half-staff from a Monday through the end of the following Friday.

What days is the flag always flown at half-staff?
The flag always flies on half-staff on Patriot Day (September 11 of each year), Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7). On Memorial Day, the flag flies at half-staff until noon, at which point it is raised to the top of the staff.

What if I can't fly my flag at half-staff?
Some flags, like the ones commonly seen in school classrooms or on houses, are fixed in a certain position on their poles. How does one handle the sticky situation of a flag that physically can't be flown at half-staff? The United States Code doesn't cover this conundrum, but the American Legion advocates adding a black ribbon to the top of the flag's pole to indicate mourning.

Can anyone other than the President order flags to be flown at half-staff?
Sure. Governors of states, territories, and possessions have the authority under the federal flag code to order a half-staffing, as does the mayor of Washington, D.C.

It's not uncommon for a local mayor to order a half-staffing following the death of some prominent citizen, and occasionally businesses will half-staff their flags to honor the passing of a member of the company. Technically, these sorts of half-staffings aren't covered by the federal flag code. There's no penalty for breaking the federal flag code, though, so it's generally no big deal if a local leader wants to honor a prominent citizen in this way.

How does one raise a flag to half-staff?
Surprisingly, not just by raising it halfway up the flagpole. To properly fly a flag at half-staff in mourning, one quickly raises the flag to the peak of the pole before slowly lowering it back down to the half-staff position.

Portions of this post originally appeared in 2009.

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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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Big Questions
What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

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

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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