March 29, 2008

Death Rays

Stupid Question ™
May 23, 2005
By John Ruch
© 2005

Q: Did the military ever really try to build a “death ray,” or is it just science fiction?
—Michelle, from the Internet

A: The militaries of all major world powers have definitely been interested in “death rays” since the 1930s. In fact, most of the early research on lasers was funded by the US Department of Defense.

However, the idea of using some kind of concentrated radiation as a killing tool has foundered on enormous cost, size, fragility, atmospheric scattering and a host of other problems.

While a “death ray” that could kill armies or destroy cities is not at all practical, lasers have successfully shot down planes, helicopters and missiles. But reliability and bang for the buck still hamper these limited uses.

The primary military uses for so-called beam weapons like lasers, microwave weapons and particle beams is targeting, sensor/computer jamming and blinding enemy soldiers. The only laser pistols the US Army uses are toys featured in an arcade game operated by recruiters at sports events.

The death ray genre typically begins with medieval legends of the ancient Greeks’ supposed use of mirrors to focus sunlight to destroy enemy ships. But modern military interest began in the 1930s with the successes of electricity and radio. The idea of using microwave radiation to bring down planes or kill large numbers of troops started to pop up in military minds.

The pioneering but increasingly eccentric scientist Nikola Tesla claimed in 1934 he had a system for hurling some type of electrically charged particles at great distances to cause damage. (Exactly how much damage is unclear; some press accounts suggest the kind of damage that would only be realized by nuclear weapons, while others say he proposed only freezing airplane engines and the like.) By 1940 he was calling it “teleforce,” though the press preferred “death ray” or “death beam.”

Whatever Tesla had in mind, he never demonstrated it. And the idea of a microwave weapon—which would produce heat in humans—similarly faded as it became clear the waves spread out too quickly over distance to cause any sort of personnel damage.

The potential for microwave devices as computer-jammers, however, remains significant. As of 1991, five US Army helicopters had crashed because nearby civilian towers carrying microwave signals had fried their systems.

This journey from supposed soldier-killer to sensor/computer-destroyer is the path taken by most death ray concepts.

The particle beam (charged subatomic particles with great velocity) and the laser (intensified light) came about in the late 1950s with major funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Defense Department’s research and development branch known for letting wild ideas flourish.

It’s doubtful researchers seriously considered the laser or particle beam would result in a hand-held ray gun.

And indeed, devices that could do that kind of damage are far too large, too expensive, too difficult to aim and require too much power for the job. Laser expert Jeff Hecht in his book “Beam Weapons” calculated that for a laser to burn a 1-centimeter-wide hole through a human body would take at minimum 100 times the energy of a conventional .45-caliber bullet, which does far more physical damage besides.

Lasers in particular did prove capable of bringing down thin-skinned drone aircrafts and missiles. As early as 1975, the Army in a test shot down planes and helicopters at range with a large laser mounted in a turret atop an armored personnel carrier.

However, outside test conditions, lasers are less reliable for such tasks, especially if the smoke of battle and scattering effect of the atmosphere at long range is figured in. And even with the successes, the exact reasons lasers brought down flying objects varied from burning an actual hole to jamming navigation hardware or software.

Lasers continue to be studied as missile-destroyers, including in the current version of a “missile-defense shield” against nuclear weapons. (A preposterous specialty X-ray laser cluster, which needed so much power it could only be powered by a nuclear blast, was one of the ideas behind the original “Star Wars” missile defense program.)

But targeting and frying sensors on weapons or satellites remain the main uses for lasers.

And lasers can blind not only mechanical sensors, but human eyes, too. As early as the 1970s, lasers were used to dazzle enemy pilots, with definitive use by the Soviets and the British. In the 1980s, the Army tested hand-held lasers codenamed Dazer and Cobra with the intent of dazzling or blinding the enemy.

The business of blinding enemy troops is generally frowned upon, but that side effect of laser targeting systems is not lost on troops in the field. Laser-blocking goggles and visors have become commonplace in the modern arsenal.

Particle beams can pack a wallop. As Hecht notes, lightning is essentially a particle beam. But, like lightning, they’re also unreliable in their targeting and effect. They’re probably much less useful than lasers. The Soviets raised the possibility of using a particle beam generator to create a truly devastating death ray by stimulating the atmosphere into releasing lethal secondary radiation—but as usual, that would be insanely inefficient and expensive. Full-scale nuclear war would be easier and cheaper.

Specialty use and general harassment appear to be the future of ray guns. The Army has explored the relatively feasible realm of infrared lasers than can painfully but not seriously burn exposed human skin. There is also military research into sonic weapons that could disorient or nauseate enemies, but the familiar problems of aiming and reliability have cropped up.

It is worth noting, barely, that conspiracy theorists have a variety of death-ray beliefs about the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facility in Alaska, which uses extremely high-powered radio to study the ionosphere. While such beliefs are encouraged by DARPA’s funding of HAARP, it has yet to lay waste to the countryside.

Execution As Homicide

Stupid Question ™
May 16, 2005
By John Ruch
© 2005

Q: Why isn’t a person who carries out a state execution guilty of homicide themselves?
—Jackie, Mashpee, Massachusetts

A: An executioner certainly commits homicide. However, in law, that’s a neutral term that doesn’t necessarily imply criminal guilt.

There are three broad subclasses of homicide in law. The one we generally think of “homicide” in the murder-mystery sense is felonious homicide. In a case of terrible tautology, it simply means homicide that is punishable as a felony (in medieval times, a felony was any crime punishable by death—a much longer list than ours today).

In practical terms, it means a homicide carried out with criminal intent. Felonious homicide is broken down into two more familiar types: murder and manslaughter.

Murder is felonious homicide conducted with “malice aforethought”—premeditation or malicious intent. While definitions of manslaughter vary widely, it generally means felonious homicide without premeditated malice. The classic example is a “crime of passion”—killing someone in the heat of an argument.

Murder is considered worse than manslaughter and punished accordingly.
Felonious homicide also includes “felony murder”—a killing conducted while committing some other, primary felony. It’s essentially a way of punishing what would normally be manslaughter as murder to discourage violent crimes. For example, let’s say you use explosives to blow open a bank vault in the middle of the night with no expectation of anyone being inside. Your intent is to commit various felonies, but not murder. However, if someone turns out to be inside by chance and is killed by the blast, you could be charged with felony murder in some jurisdictions.

Murder and manslaughter don’t necessarily involve direct action. You can be charged with either one for a killing carried out by “procurement” (getting someone else to do the deed)—or “omission” (failing to act in a way that kills someone, such as not feeding them, or acting recklessly).

Another broad legal category is excusable homicide. This covers accidental killings that cannot be considered a crime. Say you hit a golf ball on a course, which bounces off a tree, goes into a crowd, hits a man on the head, and kills him. You have committed homicide, but obviously you had no criminal intent or recklessness. The law would excuse you from criminal penalties.

A legal execution is obviously not excusable homicide. In fact, it sounds like felonious homicide. It fits the bill of the most severe kind of murder—premeditated and malicious. It also involves procurement; because the executioner is a hired killer, it would seem the entire state, and arguably the entire populace of the democracy, could be charged with murder.

But a legal execution is not murder because of the third legal category: justifiable homicide. It covers a killing conducted in self-defense or under some other legal right. Justifiable homicides clearly involve intent, and possibly malice and premeditation, but are “justified” by the law. Because the law justifies it, it is by definition not a crime. (Definitions of excusable homicide sometimes include justifiable homicide.)

Justifiable homicide includes cases in which police officers kill armed suspects, and anyone who kills someone criminally attacking them. (Such killings must still be demonstrably justifiable.) It also covers legal executions, which are penalties justified by the law.

To put a fine point on it, an execution is not legal simply because the state carries it out. It has to be authorized by law. Therefore, if a state conducted an execution without having a death penalty law, it would be murder, not justifiable homicide.

Alan Smithee

Stupid Question ™
May 9, 2005
By John Ruch
© 2005

Q: Where did the fake name Alan Smithee come from for directors of bad movies?
—Scott and Doug, Columbus, Ohio

A: Originally “Allen Smithee,” this pseudonym has become a kind of Hollywood in-joke for directors who are embarrassed—or simply don’t care—about their work. But it began as a serious solution to a union problem.

It goes back to the Richard Widmark/Lena Horne Western (you can see where its problems began) “Death of a Gunfighter,” which began lensing in 1967 under the direction of Robert Totten.

Totten was predominantly known—well, not for anything. But he had experience directing the TV series “Gunsmoke.” The studio, not liking his work, quickly yanked him from the project.

He was replaced by the great action director Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”). Siegel did his job, but he wasn’t very happy with the mishmash, either.

When the movie finally hit theaters two years later, egos and embarrassments led to neither director wanting his name on the movie. It being unheard of for a movie to be released anonymously, this was a problem.

The Directors Guild of America, the trade union that sets rules on this sort of thing, at first wasn’t having any of it. But finally, it decided to establish an official fake name to shelter unsatisfied directors (especially those unsatisfied due to forces beyond their control).

The general approach was to create a name that was unobtrusive, yet wouldn’t be confused with any innocent director.

I haven’t found any records of how “Allen” was selected. “Smithee” began as the mega-discreet “Smith,” until it was realized there would eventually be some innocent Allen Smith out there would get saddled with “Death of a Gunfighter.” And so the extra “E”s were added on the theory nobody would ever have that name.

The Allen Smithee deception worked, and Hollywood lore now includes the reviews of “Death of a Gunfighter” that praised Smithee for his deft direction.

Nobody would mistake the name for real today. The name, which has curiously morphed into “Alan Smithee,” is often self-consciously used by directors of straight-to-video dreck and similar movies that are simply bad out of the box, not the result of some kind of tampering.

And the joke really came out of the closet (or would have, if anyone had seen such a wretched movie) with the 1997 satire “Burn Hollywood Burn,” about a “real” Alan Smithee who comes to Hollywood, wants to remove his name from an awful film and finds out the pseudonym is his real name.

The Directors Guild is less uptight these days, and has less control over various filmmaking outlets, so other pseudonyms are used, with none being standard.

The Internet Movie Database has an amusing faux biography of Alan Smithee, including a shooting-down of the theory that the name came from an anagram for “The Alias Men.” Naturally, the biography is credited to “Alan Smithee.”

Trial By Combat

Stupid Question ™
May 2, 2005
By John Ruch
© 2005

Q: Is it true you could win a court case in the Middle Ages by fighting a duel? That doesn’t seem fair.
—Jamie, from the Internet

A: “Judicial combat” or “trial by combat” indeed could be used to settle certain types of court cases from early medieval times until as late as the 1500s, especially in duel-crazy France.

It was considered fair because of the notion—evidently still popular today—that whoever wins was de facto favored by God. However, it’s probably more accurate to say that judicial combat was a form of macho gambling given a patina of righteousness. (The Catholic Church never approved of the method—especially in the days when priests weren’t exempted.)

The legal concepts involved shouldn’t be confused with the way a modern court works. Judicial combat was rooted in the legal theory of “ordeals”—torture tests that you would survive or otherwise pass by the grace of God if you were (in modern parlance) innocent.

Judicial combat generally had to involve a supposed witness to a crime accusing a “defendant” (in modern terms). But there were a variety of other ordeals for cases with a higher level of doubt, or where there were more facts to be determined.

By and large, these were straight-up torture tests, such as carrying a piece of red-hot iron in one’s hand for a proscribed period, or plunging one’s hand into boiling water and trying really hard not to blister too much.
At its simplest (and most simple-minded), the ordeals were literal gambling, such as drawing a straw or marked stone in judgment-by-lottery.

In the viewpoint of the times, these weren’t random practices, because nothing was; God directs everything, and always favors the righteous.
Faith did not run so deep that such laws applied to everyone, however. The torture tests, with their obvious presumption of guilt, were reserved almost exclusively for commoners.

Judicial combat, on the other hand, thrived in the nobility, where it was wrapped in the gaudy philosophy of chivalry. In later periods it was often carried out in what would be considered military courts today, with its outcome recognized by common law as well.

I said before that the outcome of an ordeal judged innocence in modern terms. In the terms of the day, however, what it really determined was truthfulness. Then, as now, the basis of the legal system was one party making a claim against another party—and both sides claiming the other is making it all up.

However, we start from a position of the accused being innocent, and they can leave court with a determination of “not guilty.” Judicial combat was much more focused on personal honor and the truth of each party’s claim.
As historian Francois Billacois noted, the fundamental idea behind the duel of the era was calling each other a liar. The loser of judicial combat wasn’t merely dishonored (and likely dead); he was automatically considered a perjurer.

While perjury is still a crime in our modern system, it’s rarely prosecuted. And it’s unimaginable that someone would be executed for perjury, let alone punished before a determination of the facts of the larger crime is made. But that’s what judicial combat did.

In the system of chivalry, being called a liar was an affront to a man’s all-important honor. While fighting it out was oh-so-manly, there was another way to resolve the situation—you could get friends and allies to swear to your good character.

If that didn’t work, combat it was. Of course, fighting to the death was something of a deterrent, and out-of-court settlements were still possible (such as withdrawing the accusation).

The exact ceremony for judicial combat varied with time and place. In France, which kept the custom the longest and in the most elaborate form, it eventually could be invoked only for the most serious crimes and only with the king himself officiating.

However, some general rules appear to have applied. The fight wasn’t necessarily to the death, there always being some kind of judgment as to what meant defeat. Forfeit was also possible (though it could be followed by execution).

Women were never dragged into combat. Elderly men and those too impaired to fight could also get out of it. Historian Bradford Broughton noted that “even broken foreteeth could disqualify a man, for these teeth helped greatly in the victory”—indicating the savagery judicial combat could involve.

That’s not say the actual accuser and defendant would be the ones stabbing and biting each other. It was often possible (sometimes legally, sometimes not) to hire “champions,” or professional fighters, to duel in one’s place. Apparently God’s favor could be bought by proxy.

In keeping with the irrationality of the whole business, another universal practice was inspecting the combatants for magical talismans—supernatural steroids that amounted to cheating.

State Names

Stupid Question ™
April 11, 2005
By John Ruch
© 2005

Q: What are the origins of the names of all the U.S. states?
—Johannsen, from the Internet

A: The most common origin is terms from the Native Americans the states displaced, typically of dubious translation, and filtered through English, French, Spanish or even Russian.

Where a credible translation is known, it often refers either to a local tribe or a major waterway or region. (Many of the following states were definitely named based on the Native American-derived name for a river or lake.) Possible tribe-derived names include: Alabama, Arkansas, North/South Dakota, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas and Utah.

Possible waterway/region-derived names include: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon and Wisconsin.

Tennessee is known to be of Native American origin, but its meaning is a mystery. Some sources propose it came from the name of a town.

Hawaii is a native Polynesian name of unknown origin, possibly referring to its original discoverer or a legendary Polynesian motherland.

Iowa comes with varying guesses, either as a possible place name, or an insulting term for a tribe known as the “sleepy ones.”

Wyoming is an oddball in the bunch. It’s named for the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, which in turn was derived from an Algoquin/Delaware term meaning something like “large plains,” which in turn may be an English invention made by mashing Native American words together.

Naming states for people is also popular. Georgia was named for England’s King George II.

Maryland was dedicated to Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of England’s King Charles I. Ol’ Chuck himself was memorialized with North/South Carolina, the feminized (as place names always are) adjectival version of his name in Latin.

Virginia (and by extension, West Virginia) was named for England’s Queen Elizabeth I, known as the “Virgin Queen.” Louisiana comes from the French La Louisianne, their name for the whole Mississippi Valley, which was a French colony under the eponymous King Louis XIV.

Among lesser royalty, Delaware was named for the bay and river, which in turn were named for Thomas West, Baron (Lord) De La Warr, who was a governor at Virginia’s Jamestown colony. New York was a tribute to James Stuart, the Duke of York and Albany. York, of course, is a district of England.

George Washington, who refused to become royalty at all, gave his name to Washington State. Pennsylvania, a Latinized form of “Penn’s woodland,” is named in theory for state founder William Penn’s father, conveniently also named William.

Foreign (though not foreign during the original colonial period) or modern Latin descriptive phrases are responsible for several names. Colorado (Spanish for “reddish”) originally referred to the Colorado River. Florida is Spanish for “filled with flowers”; it can also refer to “Feast of Flowers,” or Easter, and the state’s land was reputed spotted by Ponce de le Leon on Easter Sunday.

Montana is modern Latin for “mountainous area.” Nevada, which means “snow-covered” in Spanish, originally referred to the Sierra Nevada mountains, not the desert interior. Vermont is a flipped-around corruption of the French “Les Monts Verts,” or “Green Mountains”—also the name of the state’s major mountain chain.

New Mexico’s origin is pretty obvious, as are the English-dubbed New Hampshire and New Jersey.

Rhode Island’s name is a mystery that could be a foreign phrase or a borrowed place name. Some argue it means “red island,” from the Dutch “roodt,” while others propose it was named in honor of the Greek island and seaport of Rhodes.

A few state names were deliberately invented. Indiana is modern Latin for “land of the Indians.” Idaho is fake Native American and doesn’t mean anything as far as anyone can tell.

Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw words for “red” and “people.” But it’s not a Choctaw term. Instead, it was invented by European-Americans as a term for the area in which they planned to dump all the Native Americans they drove out of other places.

California is an invented term of fantastical, quasi-mythical origins. It’s the name of an island populated by gold-clad Amazons, ruled by a Queen Calafia, in a 1510 Spanish romance. Taken seriously by many explorers, it gave its name to the modern state, which indeed was depicted as an island on early maps of the Pacific coast.

The only name of utterly mysterious origin is the rather plain Maine. Some speculate it referred to the mainland of New England (a la the “Spanish Main”). Others suggest an inspiration in the French province of Maine, though no clear link has been established.

Pirate Flags

Stupid Question ™
April 4, 2005
By John Ruch
© 2005

Q: Did pirate ships really fly pirate flags? If so, why? Wouldn’t they want to be stealthy?
—anonymous, Chicago, Illinois

A: Pirate ships indeed flew flags—variously a red flag, a black flag, and/or the infamous “Jolly Roger,” a black or red flag with some morbid motif.

But they didn’t sail around all the time with this dead giveaway flying. The flag would be hoisted at the last minute prior to engaging with a victim ship. The idea was to sneak up and then instill hopeless fear so the ship would peacefully surrender—which often happened. As Stuart A. Kellen’s puts it in his book “Life Among the Pirates,” the pirate flag spoke “the universal language of fear.”

At least one pirate elaborated this by playing martial music—drums and trumpets—at the time of assault.

At a time in which the vicious nature of most pirates was common knowledge, the flag was very effective.

While the language may be universal, the flags weren’t. The classic Jolly Roger is known only from 1700, especially in the Caribbean. Before that, and in other areas, many pirates simply flew national flags (not surprisingly, since many were privateers paid by national governments to disrupt shipping).

Still, the red flag was popular fairly early, raised as a blood-colored sign to indicate an intention to fight. The black flag had similar effect, with connotations of death.

The first known Jolly Roger was sighted around 1700 in the Caribbean flying on the ship of a little-known French pirate, Emanuel Wynne. It was a black flag bearing a skull with crossed bones behind it, and beneath it an hourglass.

Pirates did not invent such symbolism. In fact, most of their designs were common on gravestones of the era, which emphasized an awareness of the shortness of life. The hourglass indicated the fleeting nature of time.

There were many variations on the Jolly Roger, with each pirate crew having its own, much like a gang logo. Edward “Blackbeard” Teach’s flag had a devil-headed skeleton with an hourglass in one hand and a spear in the other, which was jabbing at a red, bleeding heart.

Christopher Moody’s flag was red and featured a winged hourglass, an arm wielding a dagger and a skull and crossbones.

The now-classic design of a skull with bones crossed beneath it, on a black background, was the flag of Edward Seegar, aka Edward England, who flew it from 1717 to 1720. In fact, England wasn’t so bloodthirsty; he ended up marooned by his own crew for showing too much mercy to a captured captain. He was undoubtedly sympathetic, since he himself was originally a captive who chose to join the pirate crew.

The term “Jolly Roger” is first found in print in the late 1700s. It’s unclear if pirates ever actually used it themselves. In any case, it’s a playfully morbid personification of the skull on the flag as a pirate himself.

“Jolly” at the time had connotations not only of fun-loving and agreeable, but also of drunkenness and lust. “Roger” was a generic term for a man, as well as slang for “penis.” “Old Roger,” a slang term for Satan also based on the generic-male usage, may have been an influence.

Pop etymologies that attribute “Jolly Roger” to a corrupted French phrase or Indian name should be made to walk the plank.


Stupid Question ™
March 28, 2005
By John Ruch
© 2005

Q: What’s the origin of the word “bulldozer”?
—anonymous, from the Internet

A: Nobody really knows, which makes “bulldozer” one of those fascinating words whose meaning shifts depending on what people imagine its origin to be.

“Bulldozer” today most commonly refers to a kind of earthmoving tractor with a blade attached to the front. It can also mean a kind of bully or steamrolling force—a metaphorical meaning that, one would guess, came from the earthmover idea. In fact, the exact reverse is true.

Bulldozer and bulldoze (the verb) are US slang that first turned up in the late 1800s to mean something intimidating or bullying, either literally or metaphorically. In at least some uses, large-caliber handguns were called “bulldozers.”

The word first popped up in print in newspapers, where it was frequently used along with a self-conscious explanation of its meaning. These etymologies generally claimed it came from “bull-dose,” a supposed slave plantation term for a whipping so severe it was a “dose” of punishment that would harm even a bull.

This is fairly believable, especially presuming the influence of such terms as “bullwhip.” However, there are reasons to doubt it, especially since no one has found an independent prior usage of “bull-dose.” It is just as likely to be pop etymology that helped cement the intimidating tone of the word.

It’s significant that at the time, “bull” could be used as a prefix in slang to denote something large. So a “bull-dose” could simply be a large dose of anything. But then, it’s also unclear how “dose” shifted into “doze”—if that’s indeed what happened. Early citations varying in their spellings, making it unclear which came first.

The overall sense of these early newspaper definitions is of someone trying to definite and phonetically spell a slang term from the street. So I don’t put a lot of stock in either the meaning or the spelling, though they do agree on the word “dose” being the basis. Still, a corruption of “bulldogs” or even some playful term like “bull does” (as in “how a bull behaves”) seem as likely to me.

It’s worth noting that while somewhat synonymous with “bully,” “bulldoze” has no etymological relation to that word. But they certainly came to converge in meaning nonetheless. In part, that seems to be because people mistakenly assume “bully” stems from the word “bull,” which it doesn’t.
In that vein, it’s interesting to note that at the same time “bulldozer” was slang for a gun, so was “bulldog.”

Anyhow, it was about 1930 that the earthmover industry picked up the pushy-sounding “bulldozer” as a term for its tractor.

The metaphorical meaning of a bully or overwhelming force remains, of course. But today, virtually everybody presumes it comes from the earthmover term. So there is almost always now an implication of a pushing, thrusting, flattening force that was not present in earlier meanings of “bulldoze.”