Friday, June 15, 2007
On Vacation for the Summer. . .
Welcome to Notes from the Technology Underground. The Tech Underground is a world of edgy, highly kinetic, physical science. If there's news on stuff goes whoosh, boom, or splat, then, this is the place to read about it.
During the summer, it's hard for me to update the blog regularly, but check back from time to time to see what's new. I plan to start posting more regularly in a few months.
While you're hear use the search bar and try a few terms - catapult, explosion, "Orlando Bloom", whatever. . . see what you come up with.
Here are links to some of my favorite posts:
1000 Dead Men:
A description of the Gerry Report, perhaps the most grotesque bureaucratic report in all of American history.
The 10 Best North American Geek Fests
A link to a recent article I wrote for Wired Magazine
The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Robotic Combat
Remember Robot Wars? Many are still at it.
Hollywood's Catapult Warrior
Orlando Bloom's catapult fetish.
Celebratory Gun Firing: Good Idea or Not?
What goes up, must come down. A lot of comments on this one.
Nitric Acid Acts Upon Trousers
Ira Remsen, a chemist with a great sense of humor.
Fun With Jet Engines
Dippy Bird Power
My idea to end the energy crisis.
Navy Swimmer Nullification Program
A bizarre government defense program comes to light
My Name is Bond; Covalent Bond
Chemistry sets ain't what they used to be.
Water Bears - The World's Toughest Animal
Fun with tartigrades.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Yes, the following seems like a terribly dumb idea. But is it possible that this kid was not stupid but simply so unaware of the danger involved?
LAKE LUZERNE, N.Y. - A teenager who put bullets in a vise and whacked them with a hammer to empty the brass shell casings was wounded in the abdomen by approximately the 100th bullet he hit, according to Warren County deputies.
Damion M. Mosher, 18, had been discharging .223-caliber rounds, placing them in a steel vise, putting a screwdriver on the primer, and striking the screwdriver with the hammer, deputies said.
Deputies were called to his home in Lake Luzerne shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday when one bullet went about a half-inch into his abdomen. He was treated at Glens Falls Hospital and was released. No charges were filed.
Mosher told authorities he was trying to empty the rounds to collect the brass casings for scrap.
Sheriff Larry Cleveland said about 100 other rounds that Mosher hit had "fizzled," but one was somehow sent with more force. It was unclear if the bullet ricocheted or hit him directly.
An employee of Capitol Scrap Co. in Albany said Monday the business pays $1.70 a pound for scrap brass shell casings.
Cleveland said Mosher's shells amounted to just a few pounds.
Lake Luzerne, at the southeastern edge of the Adirondacks, is 45 miles north of Albany.
Information from: The Post-Star, http://www.poststar.com
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
But my neighbor has a little barky dog that makes a lot of noise. It reminded me of an article about sound masking, noise cancellation, and acoustical engineering that I recently wrote for Minnesota Technology Magazine (www.minnesotatechnology.org). Noise control is pretty interesting technology. (At Minnesota Technology, I write a column called Ask Mr Technology. The whole magazine is online and makes for very good reading.)
Noise,” said the brooding German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer,“is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption. It is not only an interruption, but is also a disruption of thought.”
Workers in noisy environments like yours must contend with frequent thought disruptions. But don’t give up hope, as there are techniques for dealing with disruptive noise in the workplace. According to acoustical expert Steve Orfield, president of Minneapolis-based Orfield Laboratories, sound-masking can be an effective way to provide speech privacy and minimize distractions from noisy environments.
Sound masking consists of an electronically generated noise distributed throughout a workspace. This increases the ambient noise, thereby “masking” other sounds and reducing the intelligibility of speech.“ Sound masking makes use of a specially tuned random noise generator. The noise is used as a base which is shaped by an equalizer to make it unobtrusive and most effective to speech intelligibility,” explains Orfield.
But even with sound masking, your cubicle neighbors can still hear you talking with your bookie on company time. “During our research in the 1970s, we found that a normal speaker in an office environment could be heard 20 feet away” says Orfield. “When we put in sound masking, that dropped to 12 feet.“
The original work spaces we designed measured 12 feet,” he adds.“But now work spaces have shrunk as small as 6 by 6 feet.So even with masking, the person next door can hear what’s going on in your cube.”
Is there anything better? A technique called noise cancellation goes beyond mere sound masking. In noise-cancellation systems, undesired sounds are cancelled out by computer-generated soundwaves that are exactly 180 degrees out of phase to the offending sound. But, says Orfield, sound cancellation is only effective in contained areas and on constant noise problems such as hums and vibrations. For example, if you’ve got a noisy air duct running throughout a hotel, you can build speakers into the duct to completely cancel out the annoying duct-related sounds.
Noise cancellation doesn’t work on random or higher-pitched sounds such as traffic noise or human speech. But research into other types of devices is ongoing. Perhaps sometime soon, a noise cancellation technology will arrive that won’t just mask the shouting next door, but eliminate it completely.
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
The editors and writers of Make Magazine (of which I am one) had a lively conversation regarding what news is fit to print. Specifically, the question debated regards the limits on which stories are too dangerous to print. Here's a link to the discussion.
I'm thinking about this because I purchase liability insurance to help protect me from lawsuits. I think it's unfortunate that I need to do this. If information is written and published in good faith, and the writers carefully vet the facts, and let people know the risks, then the writers job is done. What people do with it is up to them. That's what the first amendment protects and it's what makes America great.
The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Writers should not have to worry that somebody will misconstrue information or use information unwisely and wind up suing them. The only thing that does is stem the flow of ideas. It stifles creativity and ultimately makes the world less interesting.
On the other hand, anybody can sue anybody for anything. Seemingly, there's always a lawyer willing to take specious cases and I hear of a lot of crazy cases. I do think that responsible writers won't provide information that's crazy or wrong, but doesn't the first amendment protect crazy or wrong speech as long as it's not hate speech?
Friday, March 30, 2007
<-- James Joyce, a man whose books need little promotion.
Book promotion is hard, believe me.
Whoosh Boom Splat - the Garage Warriors Guide to Projectile Shooters has been on sale since Tuesday and I'm happy to say, so far so good. The promotional video has, as they say, "gone viral" with about 24000 views on youtube since Tuesday. As I write this, it is ranked number 1873 of the 2 million plus books on Amazon, down from a ranking of 490 but still very good. If things stay on course, WBS will be a very successful book. If it does as well as Backyard Ballistics, I'd be very pleased.
Today, I'm in high dudgeon, up on my high horse, or as James Joyce wrote, I'm "all wind and piss like a tanyard cat." Here's my take, for writers and others interested in book marketing. Boy, do I have opinions.
To date, WBS has had very little radio, magazine, or television promotion. Normally, this would have been very disappointing, but after five books, I've figured out not to rely on my publisher for directing the promotion effort. It's got to come from the author.
I don't think book publishers have figured out what works in the online age yet.
Think about it. Hundreds of thousands of books come out every year. Publishers hire too few publicists for too many books. While this is drastically oversimplified, the publicists send thousands of promotional copies to the same set of book critics and producers at traditional media outlets like newspapers, radio stations, and television. These people get thousands of books and don't even look at most of them. They just trash them or give them to Todd, Boris, or Wilma in the mail room. Virtually none get mentioned except for a few high profile picks. And even those that do get reviewed -- well, big deal (This may sound like heresy, but it's true). A mention of a book on local radio or in a newspaper column has little effect on sales. Full time authors need to sell thousands of books, not five or ten or even 25, which is about all you'll get from a local mention.
To my author friends, I say: Your own personal efforts based on 'guerrilla' Internet marketing is the best method promoting your book. Any help you get from the publisher is gravy.
Here's what I did. First, I hooked up with some incredibly talented people to make a short video about the book. It's called "Bagel Boy." Then I told influential people about Bagel Boy .
Over time, it's been my great pleasure to get to know some great Internet insiders: bloggers, podcasters, and so forth. Bagel Boy, and therefore Whoosh Boom Splat has been featured on the very top blogs in the world, Mark Frauenfelder's Boing Boing, Phil Torrone's Make: Blog, Noah Schactman's Danger Room, Kirsten Sandford's podcast This Week in Science, Popular Science's How 2.0, and a host of smaller but no less excellent ones such as Gareth Branwyn's Street Tech, the Daily DIY, Dick's Rocket Dungeon, and several others just as good but not named here.
Many authors can benefit from a well designed marketing plan that centers on the Internet. I'm should write an article this subject. Someday, maybe.
Monday, March 26, 2007
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Jeff Corwin, my favorite TV naturalist since the recent demise of Steve Irwin, got crosswise with an elephant. The video is quite graphic, but luckily for him, the beast wasn't real serious about doing him harm.
The video of Corwin getting the raw end of the elephant encounter is here
In the course of researching sections of Whoosh Boom Splat - the Garage Warrior's Guide to Projectile Shooters, which is my new book, I came across several rather bizarre tales of human - elephant interaction. Two incidents in the USA particularly stand out. Both incidents culminate in the public execution of two elephants -- one by hanging and one by electrocution. Both tales are fascinating in a Chuck Shepard News of the Weird kind of way.
What the public, legal execution of the elephants Topsy and Mary has to do with projectile shooters is hard to explain, so, I won't try. Google "hanging elephant" or "electrocuted elephant" and you'll get the morbid details.
Corwin's pachyderm nemesis apparently doesn't have a name already, so I'm going to call him "Stampy."
Thursday, March 22, 2007
My new book Whoosh Boom Splat - The Garage Warrior's Guide to Projectile Devices comes out next Tuesday (March 27). I plan to describe it fully in the days to come. It's a neat book and is similar to Backyard Ballistics (my first book) but with all new projects - including how to make and use your own blowgun.
That projects is roughly based on the yagua blowgun. After researching and building numerous such devices I can tell you that blowguns are amazing devices with an interesting history. As much as I like them, building them and especially using them is not for everybody, but those who enjoy a challenge will find it engaging.
Simple blowguns were used by prehistoric hunters to bring down small game. There are many references to breath-powered shooters by classical Roman and Greek historians. In fact, they were used all over the ancient world. There is a long and quite rich history of blowgun use, especially in places such as Japan, pre-Columbian America, the Pacific islands and of course, the Amazon rainforest,.
The hunter in the picture above is a Brazilian Indian and comes from a nineteenth century woodcut. He is holding a blowgun called a zarabatana. Here's info on the blowgun:
A short passage on Amazon blowgun construction from a travel diary-like book by a college professor from Ohio ("Don't Drink The Water," by Ida May Sonntag - 1980). She details her experiences during vacations and sabbatical leaves:
"The people along the river are largely of Indian descent. I was able to barter for a Zarabatana (blowgun) with a member of the Maku tribe. This weapon is a simple yet precise hunting instrument. Only small game is hunted and contrary to popular belief is not used for warfare. The shaft is made of pachuiba (palmwood) while the mouthpiece is made of Brazilwood attached with a tree resin. Dart cases are made of woven palm strips and the darts are made of palmwood with wild kapok cotton stabilizers. With practice the Indians can hit small birds at 100 ft."
For more info on Whoosh Boom Splat and blowpipes, zarabantana, fukiya, yagua, and other blowguns click on the Amazon link for located to the side of this blog. It provides information and does not obligate you to buy anything.
Friday, March 16, 2007
There is a controversy a'brewin in Germany about speed limits on the Autobahn. Seems that German Porshe and BMW owners do not want keep all those horses under their hood tethered to a mere 80 miles per hour, when they're used to going, say 170. As anybody with a high cylinder index will tell you, if you've got the cylinders, you want to use them.
What can they do?
As a service to them and all other speed lovers, here's Bill's list of places you can drive fast, legally.
PLACES TO DRIVE FASTER
- 80 mph in West Texas (yee-hah!)
- 80 mph (approx) in most of Eastern Europe - Poland, Slovenia, Romania, etc
Road in Nepal -->
Not Slow: Places without limits
- German Autobahn
- Unposted areas on the Isle of Man
- Unposted areas in Nepal
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
I've said many times that some of the very best tinkerers in the world live Down Under in Australia and New Zealand.
There's a particularly strong group of high voltage enthusiasts who build a number of off-the-wall things.
I found a particularly creative coiler's site called "Telsa Down Under." Check out the neat pix posted of his "rotating coil breakout point" Tesla Coil. The site owner, a Western Australian named Peter, provides a bunch of cool slides including his "Tesla Coil auto theft preventer."
What is a Tesla Coil?
The following is taken from the Tesla coil mailing list at pupman.com.
A tesla coil is a resonant air core
transformer. It is used to produce high voltages (around 200 Kilovolts on up) at
high frequencies (around 500KHz and lower). It was named after its inventor,
The tesla coil is not like most transformers that you may be familiar
with. The "standard" transformer uses magnetic fields that are contained in an
iron core. These fields transfer the electrical energy from one coil to the
other. The voltage gain or loss is governed strictly by the ratio of turns
between the coils.
A tesla coil operates on another principle entirely. This principle is
called resonance, and is analogous to a fishing pole that you swing with a small
motion of your hand. If you move your hand back and forth a small amount at the
correct rate (frequency), the tip of the pole will whip wildly back and forth.
Same thing for a tesla coil. If you "swing" it at the right frequency, the
voltage at the top will rise and fall wildly.
Peter's site appears to be Australia's answer to Sam Barros Powerlabs site (powerlabs.org) or the Make magazine blog (makezine.com). There's info on projects including ionic lifters, radioactive materials, vortex cannons and more.
(Note to readers: There are plans for a DSW (Directed Smell Weapon) based on a vortex cannon in my new book, Whoosh Boom Splat which goes on sale March 27. More information to follow soon!)
I haven't had enough time to explore the site completely, but it definitely looks like it's worth taking some time to explore.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Here's one of those weird "Connections"-style posts, where one event leads to another to another and so forth.
I was looking for idea fodder to write about tonight, so I googled the word "explosions" into the news search bar. I rarely do that, because most of the hits are about Iraq or other depressing stuff (I'm hoping to find stuff about less depressing explosions like say the now defunct Divine Strake project or Hawaiian volcanoes)
Anyway, among all the Algerian, Pakistani, and Slovakian carnage, there was a link to an article by Steven Cole Smith in the Orlando Sentinel panning an upcoming Spike TV show called "BullRun." An excerpt from Mr. Smith's article:
Okay, so thanks to a somewhat cranky Florida newspaper columnist, I now have a post about explosions. But hey, it also mentions Bill Goldberg, the professional wrestler. So what?
“Where reality meets the road,” says the promo for “Bullrun,” a television series that premieres March 13 of Spike, the cable network. And “4,000 miles, 12 teams, 1 winner.”
You know what this is about: A dozen teams on a banzai run across the country -- with one difference: the run is north to south, instead of the typical east to west. The winner gets $200,000. But it isn’t a race per se, because that would be wrong. Wrong, as in illegal, and the lawyers insist that a race, sponsored by a big TV network, would be a lawsuit waiting to happen when one of the bleary-eyed competitors T-bones a school bus full of nuns.
So in “Bullrun,” there are competitions. Such, as in the first episode, where you strap a big stick with spikes on either end, and drive fast through a parking lot, and try to use the spikes to break lit light bulbs. Yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds, especially when, at the end or every run, there’s an explosion! Well, it’s off in a field, but it’s an explosion nonetheless.
It's easy to imagine the production meeting. "This scene lacks something," one producer says.
"How about lots of explosions?" another one says.
"You can't go wrong with explosions," says a third producer, "because ovbiously, we are marketing this to idiots."
All this is under the supervision of Bill Goldberg, the professional wrestler, so you know what to expect there, too.
So this: I bought my house 22 years ago from Goldberg's sister. Yes, it's true. And my next door neighbors, Frank and Bev, who have lived in their house for far longer, tell me that they often saw her beefy younger brother in the house the family came to visit.
So, in the room in which I now type this blog, no doubt once slept the young, pre pro wrestling, pre Bullrun producing Bill Goldberg. So, that's my connection story.
No more posts this week, I'm off on vacation with the family.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
<-- Site 300 Contained Firing Facility
There are observation posts near the firing facilities to spot people, animals, aircraft, and other things that might interfere with testing. Although the firing facilities continue to be principally used for nuclear weapons research, tests of conventional weapons are also conducted.
But evidently, a public relations concern has convinced the lab allow visitors inside Site 300 via public tours of the facility the first and third Fridays of this month. The first one begins at 10 a.m. Friday; reservations are required. Tour highlights include a view of the Contained Firing Facility, a look at the site’s environmental remediation facilities and wetlands and stops at observation points for wildlife and surrounding property.
I'd absolutely go to get a look if I didn't live 2000 miles away.
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Monday, February 26, 2007
I'd like to thank those people who have written me lately with questions about catapult building. There's no doubt a renaissance in interest in the ancient art of hurling.
Catapults are wonderful, exciting examples of technology. They are simple yet complex; delicate yet brutal. Unlike looking at say your computer or an airliner, you can pretty much look at a trebuchet or ballista and kind of understand what's going on. On the other hand, the physics and kinematics are complex and intricate.
If you're interested in catapult building, I've posted before on this blog about catapult building, and it might be worth your while to check the index and read those posts. If you need plans, get a copy of my book, the Art of the Catapult (see link below).
Tips for building a catapult for school projects:
- Use modern materials. While it might be cool to build a coiled rope torsion spring like the ancient Greeks, you'll probably find it difficult to get enough spring power without torquing down the ropes so much that you'll crush the frame. Better to use bungee cords.
- I find hardwoods and metal frames work better than softwoods.
- If you're making a trebuchet, consider forgoing the pouch on the sling and simply attach a cord to the object you're hurling:. That way, when the projectile flies, then so does the cord. I call that "a sacrificial sling." It's way, way easier.
- Consider your release mechanism carefully. For bigger catapults, consider a pelican hook (it's a peice of hardware that sailors use, and you get them at stores that cater to boating) or possible an archer's arrow release. You get those at sporting goods stores. Their fairly cheap and they work well with smaller machines.
- I've created a post exclusively on obtaining triggers at http://nfttu.blogspot.com/2008/02/catapult-and-trebuchet-triggers.html
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Back in 1960, U.S. Army Captain Bertrand Brinley published the Rocket Manual for Amateurs, one of the greatest DIY books ever written. Its cover price reads 75 cents. Buying a copy today in a used bookstore will set you back about $200. But it’s that good. (I know, I have it.)
There is a considerable amount of information on rocket motor making in RMFA. Now, back in the 50s and 60s, making rocket motors was a fashionable pastime, and there were lots of clubs and societies that would goof around making rocket engines.
But like any high energy hobby, things could and would go wrong and people got hurt. Rocket engines had a nasty habit of blowing up in the maker's face and causing injury. There is a part of the process where the propellant is rammed into a tube and that's pretty dangerous. (I personally know of a couple people who hurt themselves this way.)
So, the activity changed, led by Estes rocket company, people were encouraged to buy commercial rocket motors instead of rolling their own.
That is indeed much safer. But i think you lose something when you give up the core part of the activity. The Rocket Manual for Amateurs has the info needed to make several different types of rockets and rocket engines. I'm thinking about making some. I'll let you know.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
My hat is off to the men (it's almost completely male) who have the ability to make these wonderful machines. The craftsman ship is outstanding.
Some of the machines are so intricate, that I figured it must have taken several hundred hours of work to get that far. So, I kept asking the modelers "how much time did you spend making this engine (airplane/boat/machinegun/etc)?"
None of them could give me an answer. Evidently, its about something more important than time.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
My ex-relative of mine (I'll call him "Joe") lives way, way out in the hinterlands on 80 acres of hilly woods and wooded hills. He lives in a trailer that has no electricity, no running water, no central heat. It's a lifestyle he's consciously chosen, for better or for worse.
He's an interesting guy, albeit strange . He reminds me of a grotesque, a Gothic protagonist from a Sherwin Anderson novel . Exceptionally talented in mechanical ways, intellectually present, yet sadly lacking in empathy and communication skills.
Now, the remarkable thing about Joe is that he has the highest CYLINDER INDEX of any man I've ever met, and I've met men with really high cylinder indexes, believe me. What is a cylinder index? It's a term invented by radio broadcaster Joe Soucheray. To figure it, simply count the total number of cylinders in all the internal comubustion engines you own.
For example, I've got a 8 cylinders in my Explorer, Karen has 4 in her Honda. My weed wacker has one, my snowblower has 2, my chain saw has one. There's two of us, so 8+4+1+2+ = 15 which is my Cylinder Index.
My brother, the dentist, has a fairly decent cylinder index. His pickup truck has 6, his SUV has 6, and his wife's sedan has, I think, 6. He's got a fishing boat with 4, a chain saw 1, a snowblower 2, a weed wacker 1, a lawn mower 1, a riding mower 2, a generator 1. What's that, about 30?
But Joe has (or at least used to have) a pick up truck with 6 cylinders, an old but working jeep with 4, a partially working Dodge for 4, five bulldozers (yes five, the guy loves pushing dirt) for about 25, about six old farm tractors (all working, but some just barely) for 25 more cylinders, several generators adding 6, four mowers for 4, and a bunch of miscellaneous things like piston driven welders (it generates its own electricity on the job site), a couple outboard motors that he owns for no particular reason, weedwhackers, snowblowers, and odd ball stuff like gas powered mixers, crushers, spreaders, and so on. All told, Joe's index easily tops 100.
What does a high cylinder index indicate? Virility? Nah. Obsessive/compulsive disorder? Maybe. A fascination with technology? Probably? An obsessive need to prove virility through technology? Hmmmm.
So, who's got the highest cylinder index you've come across?
Saturday, February 17, 2007
My editor (and friend) at Make Magazine tells me that he'll be on the Colbert Report Comedy Central on Tuesday, March 6. Mark Frauenfelder is a wonderfully interesting guy and I'm looking forward to the show. He's written several books including The World's Worst: A Guide To The Most Disgusting Hideous; Inept, And Dangerous People, Places, And Things On Earth, which quite clever and very attractively priced on Amazon right now.
Based on what he usually talks about on Boing Boing, I figured he'd be talking about homeland security paranoia; e.g. the Aqua Team Hunger Force flashing sign overreaction.
But he tells me he's there to talk about Make. Even better. It looks like this magazine is starting to garner some big attention.
I wonder if he'll talk about the potato gun or tensegrity tower articles I did?
Friday, February 16, 2007
My apologies for the lack of posts lately. I'll try to rectify that. I've also changed some programming things so the RSS feed to this blog should hopefully work now.
Make #9, the fringe science issue is out and on the newstands. This is the world's best magazine, hands down. I am proud to be writing for it. I've got several pieces in it, including one on how to make a bullwhip. I've made a few now, and they are great fun to make and use.
Speaking of bullwhips, this just in from the website, showbizspy.com
|Harrison Ford threatens to quit Indina Jones!|
Harrison Ford has threatened to quit the new Indiana Jones movie, unless he gets to use a real whip.
The 64-year-old actor, who plays the daredevil archaeologist, was told the weapon would have to be computer generated because of new film safety rules.
Harrison branded the rule "ridiculous" and said he would pull out of the film if he couldn't wield his whip.
A source said: "The idea was to take away the risk element the whip carries.
"Safety laws have changed since the last film and movie makers have to be much more careful.
Now they use computer graphics for any dangerous stuff."
Harrison was 39-years-old when the first Indiana Jones movie, 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' was released in 1981.
'The Temple Of Doom' followed in 1983 and 'The Last Crusade' five years later.
The trilogy made more than £600 million at the box office.
The fourth movie is due for release next year.
I must say, I side with Harrison Ford on this. I think actually being able to hold and crack the whip would be pretty important to getting into the character. While there is some risk, I do not believe them to be particularly dangerous. Better that than say, driving while talking on a cell phone.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
The grainy Internet video of Saddam Hussein’s execution shows the grim brutality of state sanctioned death sentences. Saddam looked dazed as he walked up the stairs to the scaffold. It’s hard to imagine what was going through his mind. Anger? Possibly. Remorse? Unlikely. Fear? Certainly. Perhaps he was simply anticipating the physical sensation of the ground giving way under his boots, the short drop, his neck snapping, and his feet dancing on air before blackness permanently descended over his unhooded eyes.
Is hanging a bad way to go? In the late 19th Century, after a number of botched executions by hanging that resulted in slow strangulation and/or decapitation, the State of New York decided to study this question, seeking to understand the biology and physiology of death by hanging and to determine whether a more humane method of capital punishment could be found.
New York’s governor appointed a committee of experts to evaluate alternatives to hanging for convicted and condemned capital murderers. This committee became known as the “Gerry Commission,” after its chairman, Elbridge Gerry. Elbridge Gerry of New York was the grandson of Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, signer of the Declaration of Independence and fifth vice president of the United States. The senior Gerry is most famous for once comparing the Continental Army to his penis.
In all likelihood, the 1888 Gerry Report is the most bizarre and grotesque report ever produced by a committee of government bureaucrats in the US, Iraq, or anywhere else. For weeks, these plucky public servants brainstormed, researched and categorized all the ways of killing people they could think of. Then, they comprehensively, deliberately, and dispassionately examined the merits of each in alphabetical order.
In discharging their obligation, they duly considered and evaluated an astonishing number of methods for carrying out the sentence of death. In the end, they came up with a list. I’ve got the report and read it. Here are some of the methods of dispatch they evaluated:
Beating to death with clubs
Blowing from a cannon (The commission became interested in this method of execution based on reports from Indian Sepoy army in the 19th Century. The commission notes two ways for carrying out this sentence. First, “the condemned is lashed to the cannon’s mouth. Within two seconds of pulling the trigger, he is blown to 10,000 atoms.” Alternatively, “the living body of the offender is thrust into the cannon, forming, as one might say, part of the charge.”)
Boiling (“usually in hot water but sometimes in melted sulfur, lead or the like”)
Dichotomy (cutting a person in half)
Dismemberment (like dichotomy but even messier)
Exposure to wild beasts (In due diligence, the commission briefly considered the method of execution served on female criminals in Tonquin, (present day Vietnam). The commission noted the condemned were “tied to a stake and in that situation delivered to an elephant who seizes them with his trunk, throws them into the air, catches them on his tusks, and finishes them off by trampling.”)
Lapidation (to cause death by throwing stones)
Peine forte et dure (pressing with heavy weights to stop breathing)
Pounding in a mortar. (In Proverbs 27:22, the Bible reads, “Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him.” This biblical passage prompted a religious Gerry commission member to consider “pounding in mortar” as a possible method of serving the death sentence. Presumably, this procedure would involve the condemned being placed in a large mortar or similar vessel and then pounded with an enormous pestle. This is much the preparation of a mint julep, except a condemned prisoner is substituted for mint leaves.)
Precipitation (throwing from a cliff)
Running the gauntlet
Use a little imagination, and you can envision the tenor of the debates swirling around the conference table of the Gerry Commission. On one side of the table might have been the dismemberment and stomping elephant advocates, sniping derisively at the beheading and garrote crowd about their relative daintiness, while the ‘blowing from a cannon’ promoters crowed about the sure-fire nature of their choice, as well as the state’s ability to raise funds by charging admission.
While some of these methods (e.g. boiling, crucifixion, and throwing from a cliff) may have possessed an impressive deterrent effect, few of them fit the commission’s objectives of speediness, humaneness, and efficiency in execution.
Brainstorming session over, the work of winnowing out the cruel, the unworkable, and the just plain weird began. In the end, no ideas remained –- all were considered either too cruel or weird.
“Your Commission have examined with care the accounts which exist of the various curious modes of capital punishment. . . that have been used. The result (is that none of these) can be considered as embodying suggestions of improvement over that now in use in this State.”
The felons on New York’s death row may have sighed in relief, knowing that the whole mortar and pestle thing was off the table.
Saddam never realized what a lucky guy he was.
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