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The Straight Dope 

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A few of us were discussing those booming megawatt sound systems that so many cars have nowadays--a bane of urban existence if ever there was one. We fantasized about being able to send an electronic signal that would defeat, override, distort, or blow out an offending car stereo, without blowing up the driver unless absolutely necessary. Could this be done with available technology? --Jonathan Jensen, Baltimore

Well, there's always electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. EMP has the drawback of requiring you to detonate a nuclear bomb, which may deter the squeamish. But it does work, no small thing in an age of halfway measures.

Scientists got their first hint of EMP in 1962 after a hydrogen bomb test high over the Pacific. In Hawaii, 800 miles away, 300 street lights failed, burglar alarms rang, and circuit breakers popped on power lines. Investigators concluded that the exploding bomb had unleashed a brief but intense burst of energy that, by means of various atmospheric reactions that we need not go into here, poured a killer dose of juice into every hunk of unshielded metal for hundreds of miles around and fried every electrical or electronic device connected thereto.

According to one writer, "a nuclear burst over the United States would produce an electromagnetic pulse that could cause widespread damage or disruption to electronic communications equipment, commercial power and telephone lines, and especially to digital computers." I know, sounds like a dream come true. Solid-state electronic gear is particularly vulnerable, so if you do it right there won't be an operative boom box in the entire area code. You'll be a national hero.

But let's not kid ourselves: this method isn't without its problems. One is that while EMP itself makes for a nice surgical strike, the underlying bomb would definitely diminish property values (although there are some who would say a little collateral damage is a small price to pay for peace and quiet). Possibly the side effects could be minimized if you were to locate the bomb according to scientific principles. I regret to say that research in this area has not been as aggressive as it might have been, but come on--you wanted a concept, you got a concept. Now all that remains is to work out the practical details.

Why does a lieutenant general outrank a major general while a major outranks a lieutenant? --Bob Spertus, Berkeley, California

This question has gnawed at me for years, Bob. As near as I can make out, here's the deal: In your modern army (modern defined as dating from the 1500s onward), you've got three basic units: your company, commanded by a captain; your regiment, commanded by a colonel; and your army or division, commanded by (ultimately) the sovereign. In the past as today, the individuals who actually held these lofty posts, sovereign included, were often no-talent dweebs whose principal qualification was that they had clout, noble blood, or some unsavory combination of the two. Lest the army be massacred, those behind the scenes maneuvered to have "lieutenants" (deputies) appointed to assist the nominal commanders. These lieutenants, lieutenant colonels, and lieutenant generals did much of the actual decision making.

To help them with the scut work of war, the lieutenants turned to parties known as "sergeants major." You had a low-level sergeant major who kept the grunts in line; a regimental sergeant major who got the companies organized for battle; and a sergeant major general, who helped get the army in battle order. The regimental sergeant major eventually became a major and the sergeant major general became a major general. I'm oversimplifying to beat the band, you realize. But the point is, major-somethings (or something-majors) have always been outranked by lieutenant-whatevers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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