A History of the Death Ray

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Benjamin Wakefield provides a history of the death ray:

The concept of the modern death ray was forged in the 1920s and 1930s, when various individuals theorized the application of a particle beam or electromagnetic weapon. The American inventor Edwin R. Scott claimed to have developed a “lightning device” that could “bring down planes at a distance” (NYT, 1924). Prior to this, Harry Grindell-Matthews had tried to sell an energy weapon to the British Air Ministry. In 1923 he claimed to have invented a device that could “put magnetos out of action,” which with enough power could operate to a distance of up to four miles (Ibid.). However, despite demonstrating the weapon to journalists he was unable, or unwilling, to produce a working model for the military. Over a decade later, Antonio Longoria produced one of the more bizarre claims. Apparently he had constructed a device that could kill a mouse that had been encased in a “thick walled metal chamber” by dissolving its red blood corpuscles (Popular Science, 1940). The then president of the Inventor’s Congress, Albert Burns, said that he had witnessed dogs, cats, pigeons and rabbits being killed at a distance by this weapon (Time, 1936).

Longoria’s wanton abuse of pigeons would have angered the noted eccentric Nikola Tesla, who harbored a deep fondness for the bird. No discussion on the history of the death ray would be complete without mentioning the pioneering work of Tesla. He worked on his “teleforce” weapon from the early 1900s until his death in 1943, but because he was unable to secure any governmental funding, the project was left undeveloped. His ideas concerning the creation of the energy weapon seem to be the most viable when compared with those of Longoria, Scott, and Grindell-Matthews. His theory was that a narrow stream of particles, perhaps mercury or tungsten, could be accelerated by a high-voltage current to produce a concentrated beam of minute projectiles. Tesla believed (some would say wildly exaggerated) that this would produce enough energy to destroy “a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles” (NYT, 1934). He boasted that his weapon would have the effect of surrounding every country that used it with an impenetrable barrier, capable of destroying invading armies before they could even cross the border (Ibid.). In fact, all four of these pioneers made similar claims.

Indeed, the one thing that these men all had in common was their singular belief that their death rays could put a stop to armed conflict. Tesla optimistically referred to his weapon as a “peace-ray”—”a machine to end war” (Tesla, 1937). Similarly, Grindell-Matthews believed that “the death-ray will sweep whole armies into oblivion, whole cities into bleak, smoldering ruins, explode bombs in midair, blow up ammunition dumps from great distances [and so] end war” (Time, 1924). Fundamentally, they desired to create a weapon that was so powerful that it would act as the ultimate deterrent against war. It is no surprise, then, that when such a weapon was finally developed, public interest in the death ray dwindled. The atomic bomb took its place as the superweapon of unimaginable annihilation, surpassing the destructive capability of any of the proposed energy weapons. Although the United States National Inventors Council would continue to list the death ray as a much needed military invention until 1957 (NYT, 1957), the golden age of the concept was over by the late 1940s.

(Hat tip to Nyrath.)

The Bad Management Stimulus

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Scott Adams (Dilbert) wonders if one if the prime drivers for entrepreneurship is bad management:

I have to think that bad management pushes a lot of capable people out of their day jobs, and those people go on to become entrepreneurs.

Imagine a world where managers always recognized and rewarded their most capable people. It would be hard for a rational employee to leave a great job for a ten percent chance of creating something even greater. But leaving a boss who is Satan’s learning-challenged little brother is relatively easy. And if the general economy isn’t serving up wonderful job opportunities at other companies (thanks in part to bad management) then you can see why people gravitate toward starting their own companies.

You can thank The Dilbert Principle for some of this entrepreneurial zest. The Dilbert Principle observes that in the modern economy, the least capable people are promoted to management because companies need their smartest people to do the useful work. It’s hard to design software, but relatively easy to run staff meetings. This creates a situation where you have more geniuses reporting to morons than at any time in history. In that sort of environment you’d expect the geniuses to be looking for a way out, even if Plan B has a low chance of success.

I’ve never seen a statistic on the number of companies that were started while an employee “borrowed” resources, from his day job, mostly in the form of time and Internet access, but I’ll bet it’s a big number.

Big companies with bad managers are the ideal breeding ground for entrepreneurs. Employees are exposed to a wide variety of business disciplines, and can avail themselves of excellent company-paid training and outside education. When you add broad skill development to the inevitability of eventually getting a moron for a boss, thanks to frequent internal reorganizations, it’s no wonder that big companies spray entrepreneurs into the environment like the fountains at Bellagio.

Climate science is a Hydra

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Climate science is a Hydra, according to Mencius Moldbug:

So here is what will happen to climate science if Mann, Jones, et all go to jail: it will become stronger. Considerably stronger. At least, in the near and medium term.

What happens when you kill the top 20 members of al-Qaeda? Everyone in the top 200 joins the competition to replace them. Decapitation is not an effective attack against a disorganized institution. For every Mann or Jones, there are 10 or 20 ex-students trained by a Mann or Jones. Do not these disciples aspire to their mentors’ positions? Damn tooting they do! Moreover, just because they lose their leader, does not mean that leader will be replaced by those who are the most disloyal to him.

In short, any such involuntary circulation of elites will have a notably beneficial effect on the entire movement. The reader of the CRU emails cannot help but fail to notice what was already obvious: as scientific minds, Mike and Phil are most definitely among the second-rate. Why? They are leaders in climate science simply because of their seniority; they got in when paleoclimatology and climate modeling were (as they deserve to be) scientific backwaters; through bureaucratic ruthlessness, they made their field big and powerful.

Therefore, not only do these pioneers have many disciples, but the disciples were attracted to a hot — no pun intended — and growing field. Thus, they are likely to be both more ambitious than their sacrificed former leaders, and more talented. If Mann, Jones et al get the axe and become poison in any position of formal authority, even if they lose their jobs, even if they go to jail, their former students will continue to worship them (and exclude any of their peers who don’t).

A better state of peace

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Younghusband shares a gem of a story from B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy:

Poised outside of the newly re-enforced capital of Sparta, the Theban general Epaminondas knew that beginning a siege against the city would only wear down his troops who had already campaigned deep into Spartan territory during the mid-winter of 370BC. His force was a collection of Arcadian peoples and included a large number of Helots — the Spartan underclass — among other “disaffected elements”. Epaminondas decided on a new tack. Rather than conquering the Spartans, he would contain them.
At Mount Ithome, the natural citadel of Messenia, he founded a city as the capital of a new Messenian state, established there all the insurgent elelments that had joined him, and used the booty he had gained during the invasion as an endowment for the new state. This was to be a check and counterpoise to Sparta in southern Greece. By its secure establisment she lost half her territory and more than half her serfs. Through Epiminondas’s foundation of Megalopolis, in Arcadia, as a further check, Sparta was hemmed in both politically and by a chain of fortresses, so that the economic roots of her military supremacy were severed.

Epaminondas’s strategy successfully dislocated the power base of Sparta after just a few months campaigning, and no victories in the field. After all, the object of war is not to destroy your opponent’s military force, but to “obtain a better state of peace — even if only from your own point of view.”

Liddell Hart also has “a knack for writing pithy little axioms about strategy”:

“To strike with strong effect, one must strike at weakness.” (pp. 212)

“The true purpose of strategy is to diminish the possibility of resistance.” (pp. 213)

“While strategy is the opposite of morality, as it is largely concerned with the art of deception, grand strategy tends to coincide with morality” (pp. 220)

“The object in war is a better state of peace — even if only from your own point of view.” (pp. 338)

“It is wiser to run the risks of war for the sake of preserving peace than to run risks of exhaustion in war for the sake of finishing with victory…” (pp. 357)

Mollycoddled and over-sanitised

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Dirt can be good for children, scientists slowly realize:

Researchers from the School of Medicine at University of California, San Diego, found a common bacterial species, known as Staphylococci, blocked a vital step in a cascade of events that led to inflammation.

By studying mice and human cells, they found the harmless bacteria did this by making a molecule called lipoteichoic acid or LTA, which acted on keratinocytes — the main cell types found in the outer layer of the skin.

The LTA keeps the keratinocytes in check, stopping them from mounting an aggressive inflammatory response.

Head of the research Professor Richard Gallo said: “The exciting implication of the work is that it provides a molecular basis to understand the hygiene hypothesis and has uncovered elements of the wound repair response that were previously unknown.

“This may help us devise new therapeutic approaches for inflammatory skin diseases.”

The lobby group Parents Outloud said the work offered scientific support for its campaign to stop children being mollycoddled and over-sanitised.

How 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Fred Pearce provides a shockingly disingenuous explanation of how 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world:

We’ve all noticed it. The filthy black smoke kicked out by funnels on cross-Channel ferries, cruise liners, container ships, oil tankers and even tugboats.

It looks foul, and leaves a brown haze across ports and shipping lanes. But what hasn’t been clear until now is that it is also a major killer, probably causing thousands of deaths in Britain alone.

As ships get bigger, the pollution is getting worse. The most staggering statistic of all is that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars.

Ships have grown larger over the years, in order to transport good more efficiently. It hardly makes sense to complain about pollution on a per ship basis, when the largest ships presumably pollute less per tonne-nautical mile.

This point seems equally misguided:

But, unlike power stations or cars, they can burn the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel: the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use.

Thanks to decisions taken in London by the body that polices world shipping, this pollution could kill as many as a million more people in the coming decade – even though a simple change in the rules could stop it.

This “bunker fuel” is being burned far out at sea, where it is hardly likely to cause “breathing problems, inflammation, cancer and heart disease” in millions of Britons. That’s why it’s legal there and not on land.

And that’s also how 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world — because the “pollution” he’s discussing is just sulphur, which cars don’t emit in meaningful quantities (100 grams per year).


Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Rory Miller (Meditations on Violence) may have to rename his personal fighting style jikkyoshado:

Once upon a time, waiting to start a class I noticed a guy outside trying to change his tire. The tire was slung under the truck and he had a rod which was supposed to be inserted into a socket and turned to lower the tire. It wasn’t working. He was standing there behind the truck with two friends trying to figure it out.

So I went out, crawled under the truck and started feeling around. That’s an important rule: if something doesn’t work it is almost impossible to figure it out without going on scene. The guy willing to crawl under the truck will solve more problems than the three guys trying to stay clean and dry and thinking about it.

So I poked around, ’cause I couldn’t see a damn thing and noticed that the rod he was trying to use was the exact same size as the socket. In other words, the socket end was on the rod and he had it turned backwards. Easy fix. I told him… and he said, “That can’t be right. The crank thingy is on this end.”

“Hey!” I said, “I’m right friggin’ here. That’s the wrong end. Turn it around.” He actually refused. It didn’t make sense, he said. I insisted and he pulled out the crank rod and pushed it in the exact same way. I don’t know if he was trying to be clever or if his denial was so deep that he thought if he kept doing the ‘sensible’ thing it would miraculously start working.

He finally listened and the tire was down in a few seconds. I went into the training area to get some coffee before class started.

It makes you think, doesn’t it? How many lives have been lost because the scouts reported what they saw and the commanding officers went with what they expected? How many hostage situations or EDP (Emotionally Disturbed Person) encounters have gone bad because the person went with the script instead of going with what was actually happening? This happens everywhere.

So we started joking about a new martial art, “The Way of the Guy Who is Actually There” based on the strange and novel idea of listening primarily to people who actually know what they are talking about.

Revolutionary, I know. I’m a rebel.

Kevin was kind enough to translate the concept into Japanese, jikkyoshado. He even sent the kanji. Always technically precise, Kevin warns that the kanji will be read by a native as “the way of one who is really present.” Close enough.

Thanks to Kevin — The One Who is Really Present in Japan.

Muppet Labs Experiments

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Halloween has come and gone, but Beaker’s misfortune is still a source of joy. Enjoy Muppet Labs Experiment 2Q975: Carve-O-Matic.

And Muppet Labs Experiment 5T832: Ghost Hunt:

How Patrick Henry got his start

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

William Lecky explains how Patrick Henry got his start, in Colonial Virginia:

A large number of the planters appear to have been warmly attached to England, but much discontent was produced by the interference of the mother country in the quarrel, to which I have already referred, between the laity and the clergy of this State. The sixty or seventy clergymen of the Established Church received, in addition to a house and to some glebe lands, an annual stipend in the form of tobacco, which was delivered to them packed in hogsheads for exportation at the nearest warehouse. In a year when the tobacco crop failed, the Assembly passed a law obliging the clergy to receive their stipends in money instead of tobacco, and enforced it without waiting for the royal assent. The clergy complained that no allowance having been made for the low price of tobacco in good years, it was unfair that they should be deprived of the benefit of its high price in a bad year, and they sent over an agent to England and induced the English Government to disallow the law. Actions were brought by the clergy to recover the sums out of which they had been defrauded, but although the law was indisputably on their side they found it impossible to obtain verdicts from Virginian juries.

It was in pleading against them that Patrick Henry, the greatest of American orators, first exhibited his eloquence and his antipathy to England. He had been successively a storekeeper, a farmer, and a shopkeeper, but had failed in all these pursuits, had become bankrupt, and at last, with a very tarnished reputation, had entered the law courts, where he soon displayed a power of popular eloquence which had never yet been equalled, or perhaps approached, in America. He openly told the juries that the act of the English Government in disallowing the proceedings of the Virginian Assembly was an instance of tyranny and misgovermnent that dissolved the political compact, and speaking in a popular cause he created so fierce a spirit in the colony that the clergy gave up all attempts to obtain what was due to them.

The Psychopathology of Heroism

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Dave Grossman and Loren Christensen noted that sheepdogs are closer to wolves than sheep, and now Andrea Kuszewski is saying that heroes and villains — or extreme altruists and sociopaths — are really just two sides of the same coin:

  • low impulse control
  • high novelty-seeking (desire to experience new things, take more risks, break convention)
  • no remorse for their actions (lack of conscience)
  • inability to see beyond their own needs (lack of empathy)
  • willing to break rules
  • always acts in the interest of himself


  • low impulse control
  • high novelty-seeking
  • little remorse for their actions (would “do it again in a heartbeat”)
  • inability to see past the needs of others (very high empathy)
  • willing to break rules
  • acts in the best interest of others, or for the “common good” (because it is the right thing to do)

I suppose regular Batman readers have been saying the same thing for years.

Cårven Der Pümpkîn

Friday, November 27th, 2009

A lesson in Cårven Der Pümpkîn from the Swedish Chef:

Worst of the Old World and the New

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

This description makes Colonial Virginia sound like the worst of the Old World and the New:

In Virginia, as in the other colonies, there were some yeomen, but this class can never flourish where slavery exists, and there was an idle, dissipated, indebted, and impoverished population, descended in a great degree from younger sons of planters, who looked with contempt on manual labour, and who were quite ready to throw themselves into any military enterprise. 

A traveller from Europe, after passing through the greater part of the colonies, noticed that in Virginia, for the first time, he saw evidence of real poverty among the whites.

The upper classes were keen huntsmen; among all classes there was much gambling and an intense passion for horse-racing, and even in districts where there were no public conveyances and no tolerable inns, great crowds from distances of thirty or forty miles were easily collected by a cockfight.

Among the lower class of whites there was a great brutality of manners, and they were especially noted for their habit of ‘gouging’ out each other’s eyes in boxing matches and quarrels.

‘Indians and negroes,’ a traveller observed, ‘ they scarcely consider as of the human species.’ Acts of violence, and even murder, of which they were the victims, were never or scarcely ever punished, and no negro was suffered to give evidence in a court of law except at the trial of a slave for a capital offence. Virginia, however, was a great breeding country for negroes, and chiefly, perhaps, for this reason they are said to have been treated there with somewhat less habitual cruelty than in the West Indies.

Burke has very truly said that slave-owners are often of all men the most jealous of their freedom, for they regard it not only as an enjoyment but as a kind of rank; and it may be added that slavery, when it does not coexist with a thoroughly enervating climate, is exceedingly favourable to the military qualities, for by the stigma which it attaches to labour, it diverts men from most peaceful and industrial pursuits. Both of these truths were exemplified in Virginia, which produced a very large proportion of the most prominent advocates of independence, while it was early noted for the efficiency of its militia.

Virginia always claimed to be the leading as well as the oldest colony in America, and though its people were much more dissipated and extravagant than those of the Northern colonies, the natural advantages of the province were so great, and the tobacco crop raised by the negroes was so valuable, that in the ten years preceding 1770 the average value of the exports from Virginia and Maryland exceeded by considerably more than, a third the united exports of the New England colonies, New York and Pennsylvania.


Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Behold! Habanera!

The Pilgrims’ Real Thanksgiving Lesson

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

We rarely hear about the Pilgrims’ real Thanksgiving lesson:

Many people believe that after suffering through a severe winter, the Pilgrims’ food shortages were resolved the following spring when the Native Americans taught them to plant corn and a Thanksgiving celebration resulted. In fact, the pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for three years until the harvest of 1623. Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages. Bad economic incentives did.

In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on “equality” and “need” as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” The problem was that “young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.” Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.

Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. While not a complete private property system, the move away from communal ownership had dramatic results.

This change, Bradford wrote, “had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.” Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior. Once the new system of property rights was in place, “the women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability.”

Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years.

The Muppets Do Bohemian Rhapsody

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

When I saw this, I felt like it was meant to happen: