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23 February 2017
Morning Sedition

The Five-Finger Discount

Winona Ryder In Court After Being Found Guilty of Shoplifting

Winona Ryder In Court After Being Found Guilty of Shoplifting

I'm sorry for what I did. My director directed me to shoplift for a role which I was preparing.

"Security guard says Ryder admitted stealing to prepare for movie role,"

Shoplifting — also known as racking, boosting, jacking, gaffling, ganking, by the bland retail trade terms of "shrink" or "Organized Retail Theft", and by Winona Ryder as "research" — is an old word, dating to 1673. It was, naturally enough, formed from by combining "shop", for retail establishment, with "lifting", meaning to steal. ("Lifting" as a slang term for theft dates to 1595; amazing it took over a hundred years to join the two concepts.) The 1673 form only described the noun version, however; to "shoplift" as a verb was not in use until 1698.

Interestingly enough, the concept of shop as the verb form of engaging in the act of purchasing — shop 'till ya drop — wasn't in use until 1764. (Some say 1820.) The related term "five-finger discount" dates to 1966. (Five-finger as a component of a slang term for anything involving the hand is common; witness the innumerable list of terms for masturbation.) Anyway, whatever you or Winona call it, retail theft is a serious problem in the United States:

Organized retail theft (ORT) is a growing problem throughout the United States, affecting a wide-range of retail establishments, including supermarkets, chain drug stores, independent pharmacies, mass merchandisers, convenience stores, and discount operations. It has become the most pressing security problem confronting retailers. ORT losses are estimated to run as high as $15 billion annually in the supermarket industry alone – and $34 billion across all retail. ORT crime is separate and distinct from petty shoplifting in that it involves professional theft rings that move quickly from community to community and across state lines to steal large amounts of merchandise that is then repackaged and sold back into the marketplace. Petty shoplifting, as defined, is limited to items stolen for personal use or consumption. Listed below are links to resources that will provide you with the information you need to help prevent ORT.

Food Marketing Institute - Retail Operations - Loss Prevention

So what are the most popular items? Oxycontin? Nope, that's locked up so only pharmacists can steal it by shorting prescriptions. Ok, it's gotta be Robitussin DM? Nope, it seems teenagers actually pay for that. All right, then it surely must be rolling papers. Naaah. They keep those behind the counter. So, what is it? Advil. Fifty count, not a hundred. Yeah, go figure. Here's the list of rather surprising list of the most popular items for shoplifting, starting with most stolen:

Advil tablet 50 count
Advil tablet 100 count
Aleve caplet 100 count
EPT Pregnancy Test single
Gillette Sensor 10 count
Kodak 200 24 exp
Similac w/iron powder - case
Similac w/iron powder - single can
Preparation H 12 count
Primatene tablet 24 count
Sudafed caplet 24 count
Tylenol caplet 100 count
Advil caplet 100 count
Aleve caplet 50 count
Correcountol tablet 60 count
Excedrin tablet 100 count
Gillette Sensor/Excel 10 count
Gillette Sensor 15 count
Monistat 3oz tube
Preparation H Ointment 1 oz
Similac w/iron concentrate 13 oz
Tavist-D decongestant tablet 16 count
Trojan ENZ 12 count
Tylenol gelcap 50 count
Tylenol gelcap 100 count
Tylenol tablet 100 count
Vagistat 1 tube
Advil caplet 50 count
Advil gelcap 50 count
Advil gelcap 24 count
Advil tablet 50 count
Aleve tablet 50 count
Anacin tablet 100 count
Centrum tablet 60 count
DayQuil liquicaps 20 count
Dimetap tablet 12 count
Duracell AA 4 pk
Ecotrin tablet 100 count
Ecotrin tablet 60 count
Energizer AA 4 pk
Excedrin tablet 50 count
Femstat 3 app
Gillette Atra 10 count
Gyne-Lotrimin 3 app
Monistat 7oz tube
Motrin caplet 50 count
Motrin tablet 24 count
Oil of Olay 4 oz
Preparation H Ointment 2 oz
Schick Tracer FX 10 count
Gillette Sensor/Women 10 count
Sudafed tablet 24 count
Visine drops 1 oz

"Most Frequently Shoplifted Items in Rank Order" from the Food Marketing Institute

I can sort of understand why Sudafed is a popular choice, since it is used in the production of cold-process methamphetamine (pseudophedrine is a readily-available precursor) and your average meth-head isn't known for his judgment, especially when it comes to getting a much-needed fix. (And stores are on the lookout for large-volume purchases.) But Advil and Tylenol? What's up with that? I would think that a shoplifting conviction is a far bigger headache than whatever the thief could possibly be suffering from. And if it's a repeat offense for a male offender, well, he'll surely need that Preparation H for his trip to the Big House.

Shoplifting is a topic that is practically relevant to many and it should therefore not become an exclusive craft confined to a small shoplifting elite. On the contrary, shoplifting is an art that deserves the widest possible dissemination. For your convenience we have printed below a step by step guide to shoplifting. Good luck.

"The Art of Shoplifting," NoName, September 1995, Page 10


Fran Drescher: The Only Sound Worse than Fingernails on a Chalkboard

Fran Drescher: The Only Sound More Irritating than Fingernails on a Chalkboard

And I am glad of it with all my heart:
I had rather be a kitten and cry mew
Than one of these same metre ballad-mongers;
I had rather hear a brazen canstick turn'd,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree;
And that would set my teeth nothing on edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry:
'Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.

— Hotspur, Henry IV, Part I, Act III, William Shakespeare

Bad poetry is up there, but it can't compare with fingernails on a chalkboard for sheer obnoxiousness. I've seen various explanations — such as how the sound is similar to that of a child in distress or the cry of a macacque monkey which preyed on our primate ancestors — but none of them were particularly convincing. Then I came across this one.

In "Psychoacoustics of a Chilling Sound," the authors describe their study using two dozen adults served as guinea pigs for rating sounds on a pleasantness scale. My personal favorite has to be how they created a standard — much like how there are standards for the meter, liter, second, etc. against which unknown quantities are compared — for the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. (Just thinking about it makes me cringe.) They constructed a "True Value Pacemaker" using a three-pronged garden tool dragged over a slate surface. (Aieeeeee!)


Macaque (Not a member of the Bush Administration)

Now that's what they should have used to get Noriega out of that church he was holed up in, instead of Barry Manilow. (Then again, I think I'd much rather listen to nails on a chalkboard, or even Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music than Barry Manilow. Hell, I'd even rather listen to Fran Drescher's donkey-bray laugh than to Barry Manilow.) It's really amazing what researchers can get funding for, isn't it? Anyway, here's a summary of the whole issue from the Straight Dope.

In the aforementioned scientific paper (which appeared in a publication sternly entitled Perception & Psychophysics, and is not to be confused with a vulgar and sensationalized, if entertaining, article that appeared subsequently in Psychology Today), the authors note the antiquity of human curiosity on this subject. No less an authority than Aristotle acknowledged the "aversive quality" of scraping sounds. Our heroes even dug up the archaic English verb gride, which means to make godawful noises by means of scraping or cutting.

Getting down to business, Halpern and friends subjected 24 adult volunteers to various noises with a view to determining whether blackboard scraping was really as excruciating as it was made out to be. Generally speaking, they found, it was. (For purposes of reproducibility, the scraping was conducted not with fingernails but with a three-pronged garden tool, solemnly described as a "True Value Pacemaker model.") Interestingly, "rubbing two pieces of styrofoam together," the sound that results when you pry two styrofoam cups apart, came in second.

Next, by means of the magic of high tech, the researchers filtered out the most high-pitched portion of the scraping sound. To their great surprise, what remained was as unpleasant as ever. However, when they filtered out just the lower frequencies (particularly 3.0 to 6.0 kilohertz, for you weens), they found that what was left was relatively bearable--"quaint" or "tinkly," in Blake's description. In other words, it was the low-to-middle frequencies, not the high ones, that really set people's nerves on edge.

"Why is the sound of fingernails scraping a blackboard so annoying?," The Straight Dope

I tried to track down the original Halpern paper online, but didn't have any luck. It was, after all, published in 1986 when dinosaurs walked the earth. (Perception & Psychophysics doesn't have issues this old online yet.) I did, however, find a nice summary, even if it is one giant paragraph (I guess whitespace costs more in the Netherlands. Must be some Euro or VAT thing.):

Halpern et al. (1986) examined the unpleasantness of a chilling sound. Although this study investigated the unpleasantness of a sound instead of the human ability to perceive properties of the sound source, it is included because of the very similarmethod and unexpected results. In a first experiment, subjects had to judge the unpleasantness for a number of different sounds, such as jingling keys, a blender motor, and scraping metal. The sounds were matched in duration (3 s) and amplitude (equal maximum value). The results showed agreement between subjects regarding the unpleasantness of the sounds. The sound judged to be most unpleasant was that produced by slowly scraping a three-pronged garden tool over a slate surface, a sound very similar to the sound of fingernails scratching across a blackboard. The spectrogram of this chilling sound revealed several prominent harmonics, the lowest at 2.8 kHz. The amplitude waveform showed an aperiodic temporal structure with a rapidly fluctuating amplitude envelope. To investigate the contribution of spectral content to the sound’s unpleasant character, the authors removed energy from different frequency regions by either highpass or lowpass filtering. The sounds were matched in amplitude by equalizing their RMS value. Subjects had to rate the unpleasantness of the filtered sounds and were told how the stimuli were created before listening. Results showed that decreasing the lowpass filter cutoff frequency from 8 to 3 kHz had no effect on the unpleasantness ratings. Increasing the highpass filter cutoff frequency from 2 to 6 kHz, the sound lost some of its unpleasantness, with a large drop in unpleasantness between 3 and 4 kHz. Apparently, removal of lower frequencies, not of the highest ones, lessened the sound’s unpleasantness. In this experiment the sounds were matched by their level, but still may be perceived as not equally loud. A third experiment tested the possibility that unpleasantness had been confounded with loudness. Subjects listened to a selection of stimuli from the previous experiment, presented at two sound pressure levels 10 dB apart, and had to judge the loudness. An intensity decrease of 10 dB resulted in an estimated loudness drop between 41% and 50%, confirming that subjects were estimating the loudness. Sounds presented at the same sound pressure level showed no difference in the estimated loudness, indicating that loudness differences could not have influenced the unpleasantness ratings. In a final experiment, the contribution of temporal fine structure was evaluated by presenting subjects with four different stimuli: the original sound, a demodulated version of the original (the original sound divided by its temporal envelope contour), an unmodulated synthesized sound (sum of three sinusoids corresponding to the first three prominent harmonics of the original sound), and a modulated synthesized sound (the sum of three sinusoids multiplied by the temporal envelope contour of the original sound). The subjects’ unpleasantness ratings of the original sounds were much higher than those of the synthesized sounds, indicating that the latter did not mimic the original chilling sound very well. No differences were found between the original and demodulated original sounds and between the unmodulated synthesized and modulated synthesized sounds, indicating that temporal envelope structure did not contribute to the unpleasantness of the sounds. It is still unclear why this sound is so unpleasant for human listeners. The authors wonder “whether it mimics some naturally occurring, innately aversive event” (p. 80), and think of warning cries or vocalizations of some predator. But, “regardless of this auditory event’s original functional significance, the human brain obviously still registers a strong vestigial response to this chilling sound” (p. 80).

"The sound of rolling objects: Perception of size and speed" by Mark Mathieu and Jeanny Houben

The ranking for sounds from most pleasant to least pleasant is rather intriguing:

  • Chimes
  • Spinning Bicycle Tire
  • Running Water
  • Jingling Keys
  • Pure Tone
  • Pencil Sharpener
  • Shaking Metal Parts
  • White Noise
  • Compressed Air
  • Blender Motor
  • Dragged Stool
  • Metal Drawer Opening
  • Scraping Wood
  • Scraping Metal
  • Rubbing Styrofoam Pieces Together
  • Scraping Slate with Garden Tool (fingernail/chalkboard)

I never found styrofoam rubbing together to be particularly grating, no pun intended, though. Conspicuously omitted from the list, however, is the sound of MTA subway screeching. Now that's a sound that just about rips out one's spinal column and skull ala Predator.

Anyway, the interesting observation is that application of a low-frequency filter drops the annoyance factor measurably, demonstrating that lower frequencies are more annoying than higher ones. (I always found the higher tones in Fran Drescher's voice to be the most annoying, but I don't get paid to do psychoacoustic research, so what do I know?) I guess someone should ask William Tager about annoying frequencies. (Hint: he's the one who attacked Dan Rather for beaming thought waves at him, and this inspired "What's the Frequency Kenneth" from REM.)

But why should lower frequences be more annoying than higher ones? The answer seems to lie in the physiology of the human ear:

Having recently done some work on the pleasantness/unpleasantness of sounds (JASA 110(1), 380-390, 2001) I was somewhat curious to read that it was the low frequencies that produced the effect, since most of the literature I am aware of (e.g. see review in Vitz (1973) P&P, 11, 84-88) suggests the opposite. However, having got hold of a copy of the Halpern et al. paper I note that sound in question has a fairly strong harmonic structure with a fundamental at about 1.4 kHz. The fundamental is very weak and most of the energy is in harmonics 2,3,4 and 5, starting at 2.8 kHz. By most standards this sound would be considered to be quite high. So the term "low" should be considered in relative terms. Nevertheless, application of a high-pass filter to this sound suggested that it was frequencies less than 2-3 kHz which were predominant in the effect, and by implication the fundamental and possibly the 2nd harmonic, i.e. sounds between about 1 - 2 kHz. In the previous literature and my own work, sounds less than 1 kHz were considered to be least annoying or most pleasant. So why do sounds with frequencies between 1-2 kHz cause the effect? My guess is that the effect is produced by activation of various myogenic reflex responses including the stapedius response, the post-auricular response and responses of other muscles innervated by the facial nerve (and possibly the trigeminal nerve). It so happens that the tuning curves of stapedius motorneurons have their best frequencies between 1-2 kHz with a threshold of about 75 dB in the cat (see Kobler et al. (1992), J. Neurophysiol. 68, 807-817). (These should be distinguished from myogenic vestibular responses mediated by the accessory nerve, which responds to frequencies less than 1 kHz.) In order for this to work then the scraping sound would have to be above about 75 dB, but it's not clear from Halpern et al. what intensity they presented the sounds to the subjects. However, the proposed mechanism would account for why the effect appears to be reflexive. It can't be very pleasant having all those muscles twitching away!

"Re: finger nails on blackboard" by Neil Todd, todd(at)FS4 dot PSY dot MAN dot AC dot UK

Ok, let's put that into English. The stapedius is a muscle in the inner ear that acts to protect the ear from loud noise, including the sound of our own voice (Fox newscasters must have an overactive one to stave off deafness) and mastication (eating). Certain sounds in the 1-2KHz range have the effect of causing spasms in the stapedius. The exact mechanism is unknown, but may have to do with higher frequency harmonics arising out of the lower tones, perhaps because of the resonant frequency of the ear bones. The effect of certain frequencies is to cause pain in the stapedius which makes us cringe.

So how plausible is this? Well, consider that the distaste for screeching does not seem to be be universal among primates, which it really should be if the mechanism for distaste is one of avoidance of a predator. Tamarin monkeys, for example, don't seem to mind it much:

As a second test of whether tamarins might have acoustic preferences based on something other than amplitude or behavioral relevance, we attempted to generate two nonmusical stimuli with similar amplitudes that were expected to produce a large preference in humans. We began by generating a stimulus that is highly aversive to most humans—the sound of fingernails on a blackboard (Halpern, Blake, & Hillenbrand, 1986). The relationship between the responses that humans have to this stimulus and to musical stimuli is unclear, but it seemed conceivable that nonhuman animals might respond aversively to such a stimulus despite the lack of preference for consonance over dissonance.


When tested on the screech and control stimuli, however, the tamarins showed no evidence of a preference. We ran the tamarins for several consecutive sessions (NZ37 sessions) to see if a preference would emerge over time. As shown in Fig. 5b, there was no preference (t[36]Z0.89; pZ0.15). In contrast with humans, who show a pronounced preference for white noise over the screeching sound, tamarins do not exhibit a preference.

"Are consonant intervals music to their ears? Spontaneous acoustic preferences in a nonhuman primate" by Josh McDermotta and Marc Hauserb, Cognition, 94 (2004)

Now, just when you start to believe that it's all in the ear, I'll throw this into the mix:

Seth Horowitz is a neuroscientist who uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of the brain to find how different sounds can trigger activity in the brain. Now he is working with a musician to create music incorporating sounds, in the hopes of triggering specific emotional responses.


Horowitz began to study whether sounds could trigger emotional states. For example, the sound of fingernails on a blackboard is an effective way to cause many people to feel uneasy. So Horowitz broke down the sound of fingernails on a blackboard to isolate exactly the sounds responsible for triggering uneasy feelings. He calls those sounds neuro-sensory algorithms, or NSAs. Then he analyzed sounds that trigger activity in the same region of the brain. He did the same for sounds that make people feel calm or happy or stimulated. By combing through the data, Horowitz was able to come up with dozens of different sounds that triggered emotional responses in the correct regions of the brain. NSAs all sound different. Some can be a very brief sound that immediately triggers activity in a certain part of the brain. Others can be complicated mixes of sound that last up to 30 seconds and trigger activity in different parts of the brain simultaneously.

"Mood Music" The Osgood File (CBS Radio Network), 26 January 2005

Anyway, the next time some brain-dead creationist tells you that the human body is an example of intelligent design, I suggest you scrape your fingernails across a chalkboard. (Or a piece of slate with a gardening tool.) Get them to explain the "intelligent design" behind that for you.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Psychoacoustics of a chilling sound." by D. Lynn Halpern, Randy Blake, Jim Hillenbrand, Perception and Psychophysics, Vol. 39 No. 2, February 1986, Pages 77-80
  2. "Why is the sound of fingernails scraping a blackboard so annoying?," The Straight Dope
  3. "The sound of rolling objects: Perception of size and speed" by Mark Mathieu and Jeanny Houben
  4. "Re: finger nails on blackboard" by Neil Todd
  5. "M109: Reflexes and/or associations" (more discussion on Neil Todd's comments)
  6. "Are consonant intervals music to their ears? Spontaneous acoustic preferences in a nonhuman primate" by Josh McDermotta and Marc Hauserb, Cognition, 94 (2004)
  7. "Mood Music" The Osgood File (CBS Radio Network), 26 January 2005

Cartoon About Fingernails on Blackboard versus Celene Dion

The Ombibulous Soviet Union

Russian Tax Stamp 1890

Russian Alcohol Tax Stamps 1890

My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.

— Winston Churchill, on dining with the abstinent King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia

The The Museum of Anti-Alcohol Posters has a number of posters from the Soviet Union created to stem the rising tide of alcoholism. While the Website doesn't make it clear, I believe these posters date to the 1986-1988 period when the newly-appointed Mikhail Gorbachev launched his reform campaign. In addition to his extensive efforts in glasnost (openness in public life) and perestroika (political and economic restructuring), Gorbachev wanted people to be healthier:

In early 1985, Gorbachev succeeded Chernenko, who is believed to have died from cirrhosis. The campaign, although identified by many commentators with Mikhail Gorbachev, is now thought to have owed rather more to others. His wife, Raisa, who had direct experience of the effects of alcoholism in her family, may have played a major part, but the prime movers are now known to have been two members of the Politburo, Yegor Ligachev and Michael Solomentsev (White, 1996; Service, 1997). They were able to gain acceptance of the policy despite opposition from many other senior politicians. Gorbachev has also suggested that his daughter, Irina Mikhailovna Virginskaya who is a medical doctor, played an important role in convincing him (Gorbachev, 1996).

Gorbachev launched the anti-alcohol campaign in May 1985 (Ivanets and Lukomskaya, 1990; Tarchys, 1993; White, 1996). All organs of the state were exhorted to develop strategies to reduce alcohol consumption. One of the most visible manifestations of this, to foreigners, was that alcohol was banned at official functions, but also party officials and managers who drank heavily were to be dismissed, outlets were to be reduced radically, and many other actions were to be taken by, for example, trade unions and the media. In particular, an attempt to mobilize society in the campaign for temperance led to the creation of the All-Union Voluntary Society for the Struggle for Sobriety in September 1985. This society claimed 12 million members after 1 year.

"Alcohol in Russia", by Martin McKee, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 34, No. 6, 1999

Several points about the campaign should be noted. The May launch was an advance announcement of future action. The first rules restricting access to alcohol came into effect on 1 June 1985. These were important, as they included a series of actions that could be enforced at once and where the impact of enforcement was highly visible, such as banning drinking of alcohol at all workplaces, including formerly legal bars, such as those in higher education establishments; banning sales before 2 p.m.; restricting alcohol sales to off-licences; and banning sales on trains (including dining-cars) and similar establishments.

In August 1985 prices increased by 25%, with another increase in August 1986. Subsequently there was a series of further measures to restrict access, with cuts in production leading to massive shortages.

"Alcohol in Russia", by Martin McKee, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 34, No. 6, 1999

Alcohol — Enemy of Mind

Alcohol — Enemy of Mind

The irony is that the campaign actually worked. Why was this a problem? {In Russian voice} Well, comrade, in Soviet Union people own means of production. So when people not buy alcohol state not make money. {Back to American voice.} Coupled with a decline in oil exports, the state ended up seriously short of money. Yeah, Russians drank a lot in those days. While I'm certain this is no surprise to you, the amounts they drank may be:

A key contributing factor in the major causes of death, particularly among the male population, was the high level of alcoholism--a long-standing problem, especially among the Slavic peoples (Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian). Alcoholism was often referred to as the "third disease," after cardiovascular illness and cancer. Soviet health organizations and police records put the total number of alcoholics at over 4.5 million, but Western experts contended that this number applied only to those at the most advanced stage of alcoholism and that in 1987 the real number of alcoholics was at least 20 million.

Soon after coming to power, Gorbachev launched the most massive antialcohol campaign in Soviet history and voiced his concern not only about the health problems stemming from alcohol abuse but also about the losses in labor productivity (up to 15 percent) and the increased divorce rate. The drive appeared to have an almost immediate effect on the incidence of diseases directly related to alcohol: for example, cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol poisoning decreased from 47.3 per 1,000 in 1984 to 23.3 per 1,000 in 1986. The biggest declines were in the Russian and Ukrainian republics, where the problem was the most widespread. Some attributed the modest rise in male life expectancy between 1985 and 1986 to success in the battle against the "green snake," a popular Russian term for vodka. But to counter the major cut in government production of alcohol, people distilled their own alcoholic beverages at home. One-third of illicit alcohol reportedly was produced using government agricultural facilities.

Soviety Union: Declining Health Care in the 1970s and 1980s

There is now compelling evidence that alcohol has been a major factor in recent widespread changes in mortality in Russia and in other countries of the former Soviet Union. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, the newly appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, instituted a large-scale anti-alcohol campaign. Within a few years, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the campaign faltered and eventually gave way to a rapid rise in consumption, fuelled by widespread illicit production, on a massive scale. These changes were accompanied by large fluctuations in mortality. Between 1985 and 1986, male life expectancy at birth increased by 2 years and between 1992 and 1993 it fell by 3 years. The change in life expectancy was due, almost entirely, to differences in mortality among the young and middle aged (Leon et al., 1997). Changes on this scale are unprecedented anywhere in the world in peacetime (Ryan, 1995).

We have previously shown that these changes were real rather than due to data artefact, and that alcohol has played a major role, with the largest relative fluctuations from alcohol-related deaths, injuries and cardiovascular diseases, while mortality from cancers remained stable (Leon et al., 1997).

"Alcohol in Russia", by Martin McKee, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 34, No. 6, 1999

Rich Inner Substance

Rich Inner Substance

The history of alcohol consumption in the USSR shows an absolutely prodigious consumption: not only did alcohol cosume 15-20% of household income but it accounted for 15% of all retail sales:

Widespread and excessive alcohol consumption was tolerated, or even encouraged, because of its scope for raising revenue. From the 1540s, Ivan IV began to establish kabaks (where spirits were produced and sold) in all major towns, with revenues going directly to the royal treasury. These gained monopoly status in 1649 and continued, through periods in which they were effectively franchised to local merchants, until the revolution. By the early twentieth century, income from alcohol constituted at least a third of all government revenue. It has also been argued, especially by Marxist historians, that heavy consumption of alcohol was also used as a means of reducing political dissent (White, 1996).

The first Bolshevik government reduced alcohol production (Sheregi, 1986) but by about 1921 consumption had returned to very high levels, in particular spirits distilled illicitly. By 1925, all the restrictions imposed after the revolution were rescinded, after which alcohol-related deaths exceeded their pre-war level, in some cities, such as Moscow, by as much as 15-fold. This decision, together with that to re-establish a state monopoly, was taken, quite explicitly, by Stalin, to raise money and thus avoid the necessity of seeking foreign investment capital. By the 1970s, receipts from alcohol were again constituting a third of government revenues.

"Alcohol in Russia", by Martin McKee, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 34, No. 6, 1999

Potentially more reliable figures have been generated outside the USSR by, for example, surveys of emigrants, especially to Israel, although these are problematic as there is evidence that Soviet Jews drank rather less than their Slavic neighbours. Nonetheless, one of the most rigorous studies, although again likely to be an underestimate because it did not include that large volume of alcohol now known to be stolen each year, suggests that consumption more than doubled between 1955 and 1979 to 15.2 litres per person (Treml, 1975). This figure is higher than that recorded for any OECD country (France was highest at 12.7 litres in 1990, although most other countries were in the range 5–9 litres), where data are largely derived from validated surveys of consumption (World Drink Trends, 1992). Of course, this figure relates to the entire USSR and, for religious and other reasons, there are marked regional variations so levels in the Russian heartland are likely to have been much higher. Other studies of emigré families suggested that alcohol consumption accounted for 15–20% of disposable household incomes. Studies by dissidents and others supported the impression that alcohol consumption was increasing at alarming levels, suggesting, for example, that alcohol accounted for 15% of total retail trade (Krasikov, 1981).

"Alcohol in Russia", by Martin McKee, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 34, No. 6, 1999

Have Mercy on Your Future Child

Have Mercy on Your Future Child

The title is from a comment by H.L. Mencken about his drinking:

I'm ombibulous. I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.

— H.L. Mencken

A Pre-Prandial Stroll Whets the Appetite

Vampire Bat Locomotion

Montage of Vampire Bat Locomotion

It turns out that Republicans aren't the only bloodsucking species capable of two-legged locomotion:

Vampire bats' thirst for blood has driven them to evolve an unexpected sprinting ability. Most bats are awkward on the ground, but the common vampire bat can bound along at more than 1 metre per second."

"Vampire Bats Have a Clear Run" by Narelle Towie, Nature, 16 March 2005

The video (QuickTime) — also available from the author's Website at Cornell — illustrates their remarkable gait:

Not only are vampire bats unusual because they run, but also in the way that they power their gait. "Unlike most animals which use their hind legs as a source of power, these exceptional creatures power their run with their forelimbs," Hermanson explains. Getting most of the push from their long forelimbs -- actually their wings and therefore very strong -- the bats run more like a small gorilla than a comparable four-legged creature like a mouse. They run up to about 2.5 miles per hour. Although many of the 1,100 species of bats are known to walk, the common vampire is the only one so far to pass Riskin and Hermanson's treadmill test and break into a running gait.

With the introduction of large herds of livestock into their native environments of Central and South America, these bats don't need to hurry to catch the cattle from which they extract perhaps a tablespoon of blood at a time for sustenance. They feed while their prey are sleeping, spending perhaps 10 minutes drinking from the small cuts they make. However, running may help them avoid being stepped on, Riskin suggests. More likely, the researchers say, the ability to run evolved long ago, when vampire bats had to prey on faster South American athletes such as the agouti, a rodent about the size of a hare, which might wake up and take a swipe at the nocturnal visitor. It remains unclear exactly what the native prey were before the introduction of cattle, he adds.

"Unlike other bats, vampire bats keep out of trouble by running, Cornell researchers find" Cornell University News Service, 17 March 2005

How did this behavior evolve? Well, it reduces the energy needed to feed:

In the wild, vampire bats feed on the blood of large animals such as cattle, horses and pigs. They sneak up over the ground and make small incisions in the skin (usually the heel) of sleeping prey.

"Bats take a long time to feed," explains Colin Catto of the London-based Bat Conservation Trust. "If they were trying to hover for all that time they would expend an awful lot of energy."

The bats are most likely to run when moving between animals, and may have acquired the skill before the arrival of domestic livestock, at which point dinner became an easier meal.

Riskin believes that the top speed of these nimble creatures could be even more impressive than demonstrated. "If they weren't in the tight confines of a cage, the bats would run faster as they would be able to jump higher," he says.

Coupled with being agile and deft, Riskin's bats were also quick learners. After one short walk on the treadmill the bats mastered both the dynamics of the machine and recognized the purr of the motor. "Vampire bats are ridiculously smart," Riskin says. "As smart as a dog."

"Vampire Bats Have a Clear Run" by Narelle Towie, Nature, 16 March 2005

Now, what's also interesting is that while vampire bats are a plague if you ranch cattle, they may be a lifesaver to ordinary people. Like the anticoagulants secreted by leeches, medicine is starting to harness the clot busters produced by the vampire bat to keep the host's blood from clotting at the wound site:

A potent clot-busting substance originally extracted from the saliva of vampire bats may be used up to three times longer than the current stroke treatment window – without increasing the risk for additional brain damage, according to research reported in today’s rapid access issue of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.

The vampire bat saliva-derived clot buster is called Desmodus rotundus salivary plasminogen activator (DSPA) or desmoteplase. DSPA targets and destroys fibrin, the structural scaffold of blood clots, says senior author Robert Medcalf, Ph.D. NH & MRC senior research fellow at Monash University Department of Medicine at Box Hill Hospital in Victoria, Australia.

“When the vampire bat bites its victim, it secretes this powerful clot-dissolving (fibrinolytic) substance so that the victim’s blood will keep flowing, allowing the bat to feed,” Medcalf explains.

In the mid-1980s, Wolf-Dieter Schleuning, M.D., Ph.D., now chief scientific officer of the German biotechnological company PAION GmbH, found that the vampire bat enzyme was genetically related to the clot buster tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA) but was more potent. Medcalf and Schleuning were pioneers in the cloning and the study of gene expression of t-PA and were among the first scientists to spot its potential use for heart attack."

"Vampire bat bite packs potent clot-busting potential for strokes", American Heart Association, 10 January 2005

I'm particularly impressed by their intelligence: "Vampire bats are ridiculously smart, as smart as a dog." That's a whole lot smarter than your average red-state American, and they suck a whole lot less blood out of us blue-staters.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Vampire Bats Have a Clear Run" by Narelle Towie, Nature, 16 March 2005
  2. "Unlike other bats, vampire bats keep out of trouble by running, Cornell researchers find" Cornell University News Service, 17 March 2005
  3. "Biomechanics: Independent Evolution of Running in Vampire Bats", by Daniel K. Riskin and John W. Hermanson, Nature, 434, 292, 17 March 2005
  4. "Vampire bat bite packs potent clot-busting potential for strokes", American Heart Association, 10 January 2005
  5. "Vampire Bat Salivary Plasminogen Activator (Desmoteplase) Inhibits Tissue-Type Plasminogen Activator-Induced Potentiation of Excitotoxic Injury", Reddrop et al., Stroke, 2005;36:1241

"The Master is Dead."

Nosferatu Coming up the Stairs

...and it was in 1443 that the first Nosferatu was born. That name rings like the cry of a bird of prey. Never speak it aloud... Men do not always recognize the dangers that beasts can sense at certain times.

Script for Nosferatu

Nosferatu. The name itself is enough to induce an excrement hemorrhage in anyone who watched this movie on PBS during their childhood. (Yeah, it scared me, too.) I mean, those fingernails! (He, clearly, isn't a metrosexual getting regular manicures.) Brrrrr! And Nosferatu did the Kojak look long before it was trendy. Overall, it's one fine piece of cinema. Retrocrush named it the 18th scariest movie of all time.

From the diary of Johann Cavallius, able historican of his native city of Bremen: Nosferatu! That name alone can chill the blood! Nosferatu! Was it he who brought the plaque to Bremen in 1838? I have long sought the causes of that terrible epidemic, and found at its origin and its climax the innocent figures of Jonathon Harker and his young wife Nina.

Script for Nosferatu

The full title is "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens." As you've no doubt surmised, Nosferatu was directed by a German. In this case, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, one of the big three filmakers in the Weimar republic, between the World Wars. Here is some background on the film and its name, director, and story:

Contrary to popular opinion, the word "nosferatu" does not mean "vampire," "undead", or anything else like that. The term originally came from the old Slavonic word "*nosufur-atu", which itself was derived from the Greek "nosophoros". "Nosophoros", in the original Greek, stands for "plague carrier". This derviation makes sense when one considers that amongst western European nations, vampires were regarded as the carriers of many diseases, such as sexually transmitted diseases, TB, etc.

Silent Movie Monsters on Nosferatu

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is one of the most important filmmakers of the cinema's first thirty-five years. He is often grouped with Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst as the "big three" directors of Weimar Germany. He finished his career in Hollywood and died at a young age in an automobile accident. Three of his films routinely appear on "The Greatest Films" lists of critics and film groups. He is one of the few filmmakers to whom the label "poet" can inarguably be applied. And yet there seems to be little written about him, little that gives his work and career the notice it deserves.

Sloppy Films writeup on Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

Nosferatu is the story of Dracula, of a vampire moving from his secluded castle to real estate he has purchased in the city of Bremen, where he will find a constant source of victims. Although the vampire is a creature of the night, Murnau has made his film in daylight. He has left the studio and the set to make his vampire story in mountains and in the sun-drenched streets of a fantasy city. Murnau's vampire stands with curling fingernails under a clear sky on the deck of a boat, whose rigging curls like Orlock's nails.

Sloppy Films writeup on Nosferatu

Nosferatu Onboard Ship

The film stars the aptly named Max Shreck as the vampire. Schreck, in case you weren't aware of it, is the German word meaning "fear". (How cool is that?) Shreck was a Stanislovsky method actor, which meant that he immersed himself fully in the character. (And you thought this was a recent invention by Harvey Keitel?) He was so effective that some on the set of Nosferatue believed that Shreck might actually be a vampire. (This conceit was later used in "Shadow of the Vampire", a 2000 release starring John Malkovich as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Shreck, a vampire pretending to be an actor.)

What's interesting is how the world almost lost the chance to see Nosferatu at all:

Unfortunately for Prana, this film [being an unlicensed version of Dracula] was too thinly veiled, and Florence Stoker, widow of the late Bram Stoker proceeded to join the British Incorporated Society of Authors, whose lawyers then took up the case for her. Stoker was seeking restitution since Prana neither asked permission to adapt Dracula, nor paid her any money for it. However, Stoker and the BISA were not the only people persuing Prana-Films: Prana was a financial sinking ship and was being hunted down by creditors as well. Just as the BISA sued Prana, it went into receivership and all materials and debts were taken over by the Deutsch-Amerikansch Film Union. The BISA then persued the Film Union and demanded that all copies of Nosferatu be handed over to Florence Stoker for destruction. In July 1925, the issue was settled and all known copies of Nosferatu were handed over to Stoker, and destroyed.

Or so Stoker thought. In October of that year, the Film Society in England asked her to endorse a classic film festival, and first on the list was the infamous Nosferatu. Stoker was furious and demanded that the Society give her their copy so that she could destroy it as well. The Film Society refused and the legalities followed. By 1928, Universal Pictures owned the copyright for Dracula, and therefore, all adaptations of it, including Nosferatu. Initially, Universal allowed the Film Society to keep the print, but after pressure from Florence Stoker, they aquired the print and it joined its kin in 1929. Then came a sudden spurt of American copies of the film, under the name Nosferatu the Vampire, but Universal had them all destroyed in 1930. It finally seemed as though this pesky film had met its end.

This was not the case though. Following Florence Stoker's death in 1937, various copies of the film cropped up. Nosferatu truely regained its popularity in 1960 due to the program Silents Please, which showed a condensed version of the film under the title Dracula. This version was re-released on video by Entertainment Films as Terror of Dracula. In 1972, Blackhawk Films released the uncut original to the collector's market as Nosferatu the Vampire, and the condensed version to the general as Dracula.

Silent Movie Monsters on Nosferatu

You can download it and watch it free at A restored version is commercially available on DVD:

"Nosferatu - Special Edition" from Image Entertainment features a stunning restored picture, a Dolby Digital 5.0 score by Silent Orchestra and a Tim Howard organ score.

Nosferatu — Special Edition

Nosferatu Being Destroyed by Sunlight

Oh, and the title line? It's from the movies's end.

Only a woman can break his frightful spell—a woman pure in heart—who will offer her blood freely to Nosferatu and will keep the vampire by her side until after the cock has crowed.

Script for Nosferatu

Sources and Further Reading

  1. IMDB entry for "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens"
  2. IMDB entry for "Shadow of the Vampire"
  3. Freely Downloadable Copy of Nosferatu at
  4. Script for Nosferatu
  5. Nosferatu — Special Edition DVD
  6. Retrocrush writeup as 18th scariest movie of all time
  7. Silent Movie Monsters on Nosferatu
  8. Sloppy Films writeup on Nosferatu

"A gang of villains profoundly skilled
in Pneumatic Chemistry."

Sign for "Air Loom Tomato"

I shot this last summer at the Union Square Greenmarket. (You Say Tomato, I say Tomahto... but Dan Quayle Says "Air Loom Tomato." Or, more accurately, "Air Loom Tomatoe.")

Bedlam means "mad confusion." Dating to 1667, the word is eponymous, being the vernacular's corruption of "Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem", a lunatic asylum in London. (St. Mary's is one of the oldest, having been founded in 1247 as a priory, used to a hospital circa 1330, and then converted into a lunatic asylum — the original British term — in 1402. The state assumed control over it in 1547. The original, and archaic, bastardization was "Bedlem", which later morphed into "Bedlam".) This wasn't a nice place to be sent to, especially if you were being victimized by the Air Loom Gang:

His patient's name was James Tilly Matthews, and his view of the world had by this point become one of the strangest ever recorded in the annals of psychiatry. Haslam's account is still acknowledged as the first example in history of the now-familiar notion of mind control by an 'influencing machine'. For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through fillings, mysterious implants or TV sets, or via hi-tech surveillance, MI5, Masonic lodges or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero.

Matthews was convinced that outside the grounds of Bedlam, in a basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and tormenting his mind with diabolical rays. They were using a machine called an 'Air Loom', of which Matthews was able to draw immaculate technical diagrams, and which combined recent developments in gas chemistry with the strange force of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. It incorporated keys, levers, barrels, batteries, sails, brass retorts and magnetic fluid, and worked by directing and modulating magnetically charged air currents, rather as the stops of an organ modulate its tones. It ran on a mixture of foul substances, including 'spermatic-animal-seminal rays', 'effluvia of dogs' and 'putrid human breath', and its discharges of magnetic fluid were focused to deliver thoughts, feelings and sensations directly into Matthews' brain. There were many of these mind-control settings, all classified by vivid names: 'fluid locking', 'stone making', 'thigh talking', 'lobster-cracking', 'bomb-bursting', and the dreaded 'brain-saying', whereby thoughts were forced into his brain against his will. To facilitate this process, the gang had implanted a magnet into his head. As a result of the Air Loom, Matthews was tormented constantly by delusions, physical agonies, fits of laughter and being forced to parrot whatever nonsense they chose to feed into his head. No wonder some people thought he was mad.

"The Air Loom Gang: James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness" by Mike Jay, Strangeness, 3 July 2003

And in the plus ca change category:

On the basis of this testimony [that he was not mad, that his symptoms were those of a man wrongfully confined, and that he posed no threat to others], Matthews' family brought a writ of Habeas Corpus against Bedlam, forcing the governors to state their precise legal reasons for holding him. They produced a stack of affidavits from other doctors contradicting Clutterbuck and Birkbeck's testimony, but the case eventually turned on a letter from Lord Liverpool, who insisted that Matthews was a dangerous lunatic who should be confined in perpetuity. So the writ failed, but on grounds which suggested that Matthews' alleged lunacy was irrelevant: he was effectively, though apparently unconstitutionally, being confined as a state prisoner.

"The Air Loom Gang: James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness" by Mike Jay, Strangeness, 3 July 2003
TitleThe Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness
AuthorMike Jay
PublisherFour Walls Eight Windows

Cover for "Air Loom Gang"

In some apartment near London Wall, there is a gang of villains profoundly skilled in Pneumatic Chemistry.

— John Haslam, Illustrations of Madness, 1810, Page 1

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "The Air Loom Gang" talk by Mike Jay, Isle of Wight Fortean Society, 29 July 2004
  2. "The Air Loom Gang" Mike Jay, Four Walls Eight Windows (publisher)
  3. "Genius Of Bedlam" by Paul Collins, review in Village Voice, 5 April 2004

Fugu! Oh yeah? Fugu, you too, ya zombie!

DVD Coverfor Night of the Living Dead

Dennis Allen: What do you want?
Dargent Peytraud: I want to hear you scream, Doctor Allen.

The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1988

We talk about zombies all the time. For example, today I was saying that if one connects a machine to the Internet without a firewall, either hardware or software, it takes about 2.5 minutes before the machine is colonized and turned into a zombie to perform such tasks as deliver spam or initiate denial-of-service attacks. We also talk about how the Democrats have been turned into zombies that do the Republican's bidding. But, mommy, where do zombies come from? Well, that's an interesting question.

The word itself comes from the Bantu language Kimbundu, in northern Angola, and means ghost of the dead. (Various interpretations say it is an evil ghost or an ancestral ghost; my poor fluency in Kimbundu makes it difficult for me to know for sure.) As for the flesh-eating zombies, well, Virginia, these horrible creatures come from the red states and they suck up blue-state blood, I mean, money. An alternative explanation has them coming from Haiti where they are "manufactured" by witch doctors. (But we in the blue states know the truth!) And what is a zombie like? Well, it aint' pretty, folks. In 1927, William Seabrook, a journalist, wrote about Haitian zombies:

They were plodding like brutes. The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. . . . For the flash of a second I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, "Great God, maybe this stuff is really true.". . . Then suddenly I remembered-and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches a solid plank- the face of a dog I had once seen in the histological laboratory at Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before..."

William B. Seabrook, 1927, quoted in "Voodoo Research Topic Study Guide" (warning: you have to pay to read more than this)

There are a few hypotheses regarding the origins, but I'll start with the most famous one.

Wade Davis, a graduate student in ethnobotany at Harvard, was sent to Haiti at the request of his advisor to investigate a zombie story:

Davis was still working toward his Ph.D. when, in 1982, commissioned by a group including the psychiatrist Nathan Kline (a pioneer in the use of drugs for treatment of mental disorders) and the theatrical producer David Merrick, he traveled to Haiti to investigate legends of a "zombi poison." The so-called poison was supposedly made from human bones and parts of lizards, poisonous toads, sea worms, puffer fish, and other items; it was said to lower the metabolism of anyone who swallowed it and paralyze his or her vital functions, leaving the individual in a condition that could easily be mistaken for death. Davis's supporters believed that the drug might have important applications for anesthesiology and artificial hibernation (the latter considered potentially useful for controlling neurological diseases). Voodoo priests were rumored to use the drug on individuals during certain rituals; after burying the people alive, they would later "magically" revive them. This process was called zombification. (Voodoo is commonly thought of as a kind of black magic or sorcery; Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as a "religion that is derived from African polytheism and ancestor worship and is practiced chiefly in Haiti.") "I think [voodoo sorcerers] probably see this poison as a support for what is essentially a magical belief," Davis told Carla Hall. "[A Haitian] is not made a zombie by a poison. He's made a zombie by a [voodoo priest's] capturing his soul."

Wade Davis, Current Biography Monthly Magazine, January 2003

It makes sense that pharmaceutical companies — and politicians — would be interested in any drug that turns someone into a mindless slave. Ok, ok, and any drug that might be a good anaesthetic. Now, the big case in zombies, and the one that attracted the interest of Davis' patrons, is Clairvius Narcisse:

When Clairvius Narcisse entered the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, he appeared to be suffering from malnutrition, high fever, and aches throughout his body. His condition deteriorated rapidly as he developed respiratory problems, became unresponsive, and then slipped into a coma. Two days later, on May 2, 1962, he was declared dead by two attending physicians. His sister, Angelina, identified the body, and another sister, Marie Claire, authenticated the death certificate by placing her fingerprint on it. The next day Angelina, Marie Claire, and the rest of the family buried Clairvius in a small cemetery near their village of l’Estere. Here the saga of Clairvius Narcisse should have ended, but 18 years later, in 1980, a shuffling, vacant-eyed man approached Angelina in the village marketplace and identified himself as her brother, Clairvius. His family and many villagers recognized him immediately, and he told them a fantastic tale of being dug up from his grave, beaten to his senses, and led away to work as a slave on a remote sugar plantation. Though surprised, the villagers accepted his story because they believed that the power of voodoo magic made such things possible. It was clear to then that Clairvius Narcisse had been a member of the living dead—a zombie.

"The Zombie Poison" by Clair G. Wood ChemMatters, October 1987

The problem is that nobody has ever verified that the "returned" Narcisse was actually whom he claimed to be, and his poorly-investigated story is the only one that gets trotted out as "proof" of zombies. But, back to Davis:

Davis claims there is a poisoned powder which causes the target person to fall into a death-like trance. It was to seek this drug that originally got Davis the assignment to track down the zombie poison. His sponsors reasoned that such a drug must exist, and if they could find it might have valuable pharmacological possibilities as an alternative to currently popular but unsafe anesthetics.

The great controversy which Davis' book has caused is mainly connected to his claim that the chemical tetrodotoxin, gotten from the puffer fish, is the primary active ingredient in this "zombie powder."

However, what seems to be universally missed by Davis' critics, or simply ignored, is his claim that the powder alone cannot adequately account for nor make a zombie. Davis describes the "set and setting" which is required for the powder to work. "...set, in these terms, is the individual's expectation of what the drug will do to him or her; setting is the environment--both physical and, in this case, social--in which the drug is taken." (p. 181.)

Thus the poison in the powder, which is a psycho-active drug (one whose effect is related to specific personal psychological factors), will have different effects depending on who one is, what one's socialization and expectations are. In the case of Haitian members of the Bizango sect, they have been socialized to recognize the possibility and process of zombification and are psychologically attuned to the appropriate effects of the drug, i.e. zombification.

Davis' book presents a strong hypothesis concerning the why of zombification. In a country so drastically poor as Haiti, with labor costs for farm hands only being about $1.00 a day, one cannot account for zombification on the grounds of seeking cheap labor. One might imagine zombification as a way to get at enemies, but the violence of Haiti's history suggests much simpler ways of solving that problem. Davis' hypothesis is perhaps attractive simply because it is so grand! He tells the story of a long history of secret societies stretching back into the earliest days of slavery. Escaped slaves, the maroons, living deep in the mountains, created an alternative society, more African than Western. These societies brought with them the remembered lore of Africa, including knowledge of the use of local poisons. The poisons were used as tools of social control within the maroon communities. After independence and the radical split between the life in the rural areas and the cities, these maroon social organizations became the secret Bizango societies, and zombification is, effectively, their death sentence for serious violations of the code of conduct required in Bizango.

Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

Fugu Sushi

Fugu (Pufferfish) Sushi Being Prepared

Now, the active ingredient here is tetrodotoxin, a toxin produced by puffer fish. (Heard of fugu? That's pufferfish sushi and it has enough of the toxin left to give diners a tingling sensation on their lips and tongue. Yeah, playing with neurotoxins is fun, fun, FUN!) Anyway, tetrodotoxin is bad stuff. Really, really, really bad stuff. (Fortunately, it isn't being used as a bioweapon yet. I'm glad Homeland Insecurity is keeping us safe from badly prepared sushi.)

"The first symptom of intoxication is a slight numbness of the lips and tongue, appearing between 20 minutes to three hours after eating poisonous pufferfish. The next symptom is increasing paraesthesia in the face and extremities, which may be followed by sensations of lightness or floating. Headache, epigastric pain, nausea, diarrhea, and/or vomiting may occur. Occasionally, some reeling or difficulty in walking may occur. The second stage of the intoxication is increasing paralysis. Many victims are unable to move; even sitting may be difficult. There is increasing respiratory distress. Speech is affected, and the victim usually exhibits dyspnea, cyanosis, and hypotension. Paralysis increases and convulsions, mental impairment, and cardiac arrhythmia may occur. The victim, although completely paralyzed, may be conscious and in some cases completely lucid until shortly before death. Death usually occurs within 4 to 6 hours, with a known range of about 20 minutes to 8 hours."

FDA/CFSAN Bad Bug Book Tetrodotoxin

Cover for the Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

TitleThe Serpent and the Rainbow
AuthorWade Davis
PublisherSimon & Schuster

Having discovered the "recipe", Davis returned to the US and wrote a book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, about his alleged experiences in Haiti allegedly learning about the alleged creation of alleged zombies. (I say "alleged" based on criticisms. More on that in a bit.) The book was made into a truly atrocious movie, which isn't worth the price of a rental, nor the hour and a half out of your life. Davis and others claim that his findings regarding tetrodotoxin have been confirmed:

A powder prepared by Haitian voodoo sorcerers for the making of zombis was extracted with acetic acid, the extract concentrated and applied to a small cation exchange column followed by elution with water and then acetic acid. The water and acetic acid eluents were analysed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. The analyses indicated the presence of an alkaline degradation product of tetrodotoxin, namely 2-amino-6-hydroxymethyl-8-hydroxyquinazoline, after base treatment, and of tetrodotoxin and an isomer on direct thermospray mass spectral activity.

Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification. by C. Benedek, L. Rivier, Toxicon., 1989;27(4):473-80

But all of this may just be a combination of gullability, naivete, and confabulation, perhaps mixed with a healthy dollop of outright scientific fraud.

Davis tells of providing samples of zombie powder to pathologist Leon Roizin, who tested them on rats. Roizin told him the animals became completely immobilized and unresponsive, though heartbeat and brainwaves were still detectable. After 24 hours the rats recovered, apparently without lingering effects. Davis never actually saw the creation of a zombie and concedes there is much about Haitian society he doesn't understand. But one might conclude that tetrodotoxin was the drug used to create zombies.

It ain't necessarily so. Davis's hypothesis has been bitterly disputed by other scientists. Two experts on tetrodotoxin, C.Y. Kao and Takeshi Yasumoto, tested two of his samples and found they contained only a minute amount of it, too little to have any pharmacological effect. They also condemned Davis for his involvement in grave robbing. According to an account of the controversy in the journal Science, Davis himself fed zombie powder to rats without result, a fact not cited in his books. Roizin never repeated his experiments, published his results, or determined what was in the samples he was given. In the Science article he was quoted as saying he was "embarrassed" by his involvement in the affair.

How do I go about creating a zombie?, Straight Dope, 21 May 1999

Cover for Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

TitlePassage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie
AuthorWade Davis
PublisherUniversity of North Caroline Press

Davis subsequently wrote a second book on Haiti and zombies, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, which didn't clarify things at all. The basic problem here is not only may the voodoo powder be fictional, but so, Virginia, may be zombies themselves:

Belief in zombis is widespread in Haiti and in many communities there are individuals who are considered to be zombis not only by their neighbours but even their families. Indeed the phenomenon is taken so seriously the Haitian Penal Code considers making someone into a zombi as a form of murder.

But in a paper in this week's The Lancet, two researchers, professor Roland Littlewood of the department of anthropology and psychiatry at London's University College and Dr. Chavannes Douyon of the Polyclinique Medica in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, conclude many so-called zombies may in fact be individuals with psychiatric disorders or brain damage.

In their study, the researchers report on three individuals who were considered to be zombis by their families and neighbours. They found the first individual appeared to have a severe psychiatric condition called catatonic schizophrenia, which can make a person mute and immobile; the second to have brain damage and epilepsy, perhaps due to an episode of oxygen starvation of the brain; and the third individual, a severe learning disability, perhaps due to fetal-alcohol syndrome.

Zombis May Not Be What They're Reputed To Be

Haiti: Serpent and Rainbow and Passage and Ethnobiology of Haitian Zombie

"The most recent writing on zombies is a curious mixture of sensationalism and scholarship--and much of the scholarship is questionable. As a doctoral student in botany at Harvard University, Wade Davis investigated the ethnobotany of zombification in Haiti. Although he spent relatively little time there and spoke no Creole, Davis had the apparent good fortunate to come across some informants who give him information on the potions used by Voodoo sorcerers to poison people. Davis thought that he had discovered the active ingredient in the poison, tetrodotoxin, and wrote an academic article on his findings in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 1983, as well as a Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University--with some of his conclusions written before the laboratory results were in.

Not everyone, however, accepted these conclusions. In fact, C. Y. Kao, a pharmacologist at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center and an authority on tetrodotoxin, is quoted on page 7 of the January 1989 issue of Discover characterizing Davis's research as "a carefully planned, premeditated case of scientific fraud." An article by Kao and his associate Takashi Yasumoto in a 1986 issue of the journal Toxicon pointed out that the amounts of tetrodotoxin in the zombie portions is insignificant.

As if his pharmacological conclusions were not controversial enough, Davis wrote a overheated and fictionalized book about his time in Haiti that reads like the first draft for a Hollywood movie with Davis himself as an Indiana-Jones-type hero. This book, titled The Serpent and the Rainbow, did, indeed, become the basis for the latest Hollywood insult to Haiti, a movie of the same title released to theaters on February 5, 1988, and appropriately made by the director of "A Nightmare on Elm Street.""

Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

"In June, 1989 I attended a seminar in Port-au-Prince on zombification. During the discussion I raised the question to the 40 or so people in attendance, had any one of them every seen a zombie "bab pou bab," the Haitian equivalent of face to face. Everyone had. So I randomly questioned one person about her experience. It turned out it wasn't she herself who had seen the zombie, but her first cousin. The next person hadn't actually met a zombie, but his aunt had. Someone else's father, another's best friend and so on around the room. In the end not one single person was able to tell a tale of having actually, personally been face to face with a zombie.

Are there really zombies in Haiti? Wade Davis devotes two long sections to this question. He first looks at the popular views and then explores cases where there have been some attempts to carefully and more scientifically determine the status of suspected cases. His key candidate for zombiehood is Clairvius Narcisse. In spring, 1962 Narcisse "died" at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. His death was verified by the hospital staff. 18 years later Narcisse turned up alive and well, and claimed to be an escaped zombie."

Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

My personal take on all this is that Davis is either delusional or lying. Tetrodotoxin has been thoroughly studied, especially in cases of fugu poisoning, and it's effects do not vary according to one's "cultural background". Survival is also dependent on modern hospital technique, not leaving people comatose in a crushed-in coffin after being buried alive.

After reading all that, if you were still inclined to have some fugu here are some guidelines.

* Always call the restaurant in advance and make a reservation; a skilled itamae who knows how to prepare fugu is hard to find, and may come to the restaurant just to prepare the fugu for you.

* Beware of a restaurant that will prepare fugu for you without a reservation unless you're a regular patron.


* Can you feel your tongue? No? Stop eating immediately and call the ambulance.


* Tip the itamae generously. You will notice that he is much older (and presumably experienced) than other sushi chefs you might have run into. In fact, avoid eating fugu from a itamae who looks younger than forty. Experience is a friend of caution in this case.

Sushi-Eating HowTo by Eugene Ciurana

Think about that, boys and girls, the next time you feel you are being daring by ordering white-tuna sushi. Oh, and if you want to get fugu, there are places in the city offering it. (They don't advertise, though, and you may have to be Japanese to get in.) Be careful with the tetrodotoxin, though — it's a killer.

Lest you go away thinking that CitizenArcane has debunked all the mystery in the world, or is not educational, here's how you can make your very own zombie:


Creme de Almond: 0.5 oz.
Rum (Light): 1 oz.
Rum (Overproof/151 Proof): 0.5 oz.
Triple Sec: 0.5 oz.
Orange Juice: 1.5 oz.
Sour Mix: 1.5 oz.
Cherries/Maraschinos: 1 whole
Glass to Use: Collins glass

Mixing Instructions

Shake everything except the 151 rum in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a collins glass over ice and float the 151 on top. Garnish with a cherry.

Drink Nations' Guide to Making Zombies

Zombie Glass for Drinks

Oh, and you'll have to get your own skull mug if you want it to be authentic, though.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Wade Davis, Current Biography Monthly Magazine, January 2003
  2. Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis
  3. Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis
  4. FDA/CFSAN Bad Bug Book Tetrodotoxin
  5. How do I go about creating a zombie?, Straight Dope, 21 May 1999
  6. Zombis May Not Be What They're Reputed To Be
  7. Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification. by C. Benedek, L. Rivier, Toxicon., 1989;27(4):473-80
  8. Sushi-Eating HowTo by Eugene Ciurana
  9. Drink Nations' Guide to Making Zombies

Better to Burn Out Than it is to Rust

It's better to burn out, than it is to rust...

— Neil Young, "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)", Rust Never Sleeps

Corroding Aluminum I-Beam

"The Amazing Rusting Aluminum", by Theodore Gray, Popular Science

Aluminum is rusty; that's what makes it useful. Really. There is a fine surface coat of aluminum oxide — rust — that protects the rest of the metal from oxidation. Without that layer, aluminum would be useless, because it would corrode (oxidize) while we watched. Copper is similar, which is why it was used for roofing. (That very same green coating on copper roofs is identical to the oxide coating the Statue of Liberty.)

Iron is quite different, because its oxide coating flakes off instead of tightly adhering to the surface. This means that new, unreacted iron is constantly being made available to oxygen's deadly embrace. Aluminum, to contrast, always has a hard layer of aluminum oxide (Al2O3) on the surface. To give you an idea how hard it is, this same molecule is the building block for abrasives and gemstones like corundum, alumina, sapphire, and ruby.

I found it interesting that the delicate oxide coat can be disrupted by mercury. Once this happens, the protective oxide layer fails to form and the aluminum literally crumbles before our eyes. This photograph shows what happens when an I-beam comes in contact with mercury; it corrodes as the seconds tick by. The photo above was taken after only an hour after mercury was applied. The problem is not just in the lab; it exists for any critical structure that might come into contact with mercury. Like, oh, say, airplanes. Yup, airplanes. Boeing's maintenance manual for the 747 specifically sets forth the risks:

The spillage of mercury or a mercury compound, within an airplane, requires immediate action for its isolationg and recovery to prevent possible corrosion damage to and possible embrittlement of aluminum alloy structural components. C. All metallic aircraft structure which is wetted by elemental mercury suffers severe degradation in strength. The rate of diffusion of mercury into a metal is dependent on the specific metal contacted and the protective finish applied; however, once diffusion has started it cannot be stopped.

Boeing 747 Maintenance Manual Guidelines for Mercury Spills

The problem was recently written up by Popular Science, with some hype about terrorists. I've come across stories from the 1970s, during the peak of the terrorist-hijacking epidemic, about professors who were more worried about mercury being applied to aircraft than they were about bombs.

Unless you are a representative of a national meteorological bureau licensed to carry a barometer (and odds are you’re not), bringing mercury onboard an airplane is strictly forbidden. Why? If it got loose, it could rust the plane to pieces before it had a chance to land. You see, airplanes are made of aluminum, and aluminum is highly unstable.


Applied to aluminum’s surface, mercury will infiltrate the metal and disrupt its protective coating, allowing it to “rust” (in the more destructive sense) continuously by preventing a new layer of oxide from forming. The aluminum I-beam below rusted half away in a few hours, something that would have taken an iron beam years.

I’ve heard that during World War II, commandos were sent deep into German territory to smear mercury paste on aircraft to make them inexplicably fall apart. Whether the story is true or not, the sabotage would have worked. The few-micron-thick layer of aluminum oxide is the only thing holding an airplane together. Think about that the next time you’re flying. Or maybe it’s better if you don’t.

"The Amazing Rusting Aluminum", by Theodore Gray, Popular Science

This is not news; there's an old magic trick called "hypno heat" which involves taking a piece of aluminum foil, typically from a stick of gum a cigarette pack, and reacting it with HgCl2 (mercury bichloride) which used to be widely available as an antiseptic. (Before people realized that getting mercury into the body was very, very bad.) The aluminum oxidizes, giving off heat, which is attributed to the abilities of the magician. Viking Magic, to my amazement, still sells it by special request:

Question: I have a document created by you in 1989, and revised in 1995 titled: "Hypno heat/hot & cold-The tin foil trick". I was given hypno heat by an old friend in both solid pellet, and liquid form, but cannot find any suppliers in the UK. Could you tell me if you, or anyone you know supplies it please. Thank you in advance.

Answer: Hypno-Heat is a mercury by-product as as such can be dangerous if mishandled. I have been using HH for my own use for over 40 years with no adverse affects but then I am cautious and I know how to handle it. This item is not available to the general public any more but if you write me directly, I can put you in touch with it: Do NOT use the liquid form. This is very dangerous as it is absorbed into the skin on contact. As with all chemmicals, keep this out of the hands of children or anyone not professional enough to handle it.

Viking Magic FAQ

One has to be really, really, really stupid to handle any mercury compound, even if you aren't on an aircraft.

It's better to burn out, 'cause rust never sleeps...

— Neil Young, "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)", Rust Never Sleeps

Sometimes Opium is the Opiate of the Masses

The Velvet Underground, 1966

The thing is, heroin gets you addicted to heroin. But opium is 40 to 50 different alkaloids, meaning 40 to 50 different drugs I was becoming addicted to.

"Confessions of an EBay opium addict" by Peter Thompson, News Review, 31 March 2005

You might be able to find anything you want at Alice's Restaurant, but if there isn't one local, or it isn't open a 4 am, try eBay instead:

Like anyone trolling the Internet at 4 a.m., I had been looking for some kind of temporary drug fix. I found it on eBay under Crafts>Floral Supplies>Flowers, Foliage>Dried.

Crafting. Sure. I liked art.

A query turned up all sizes and quantities of poppies. Some, called gigantheums, were as big as tennis balls. A special of “600 XXL-sized gigantheums” was selling for $399. Fortunately, for crafting projects requiring so many poppy plants, financing was available for $17 per month. For all of us hard-core flower arrangers, of course.

The recipe was simple enough. Hot water and crushed poppies. A blender and a strainer or an old T-shirt to squeeze out the pulp. I ordered a few dozen dried flowers from a seller with more than 3,000 positive-feedback points and a clever handle that was a clear double-entendre on horticulture and getting high.

At first, the plants came double-boxed, rubber-banded by the dozen with the stems intact. But after a few more orders, the seller seemed to cut out the pretense that I might actually be using the poppies for floral arrangements and just sent the pods themselves.

The first taste gave off a steamy insult. Even after being filtered twice, the manna was as putrid as a bowl of warm pus. It seemed completely undrinkable. Its fermented, earthy taste--a little like a liquid squeezed from gym socks--had to be chased with something sweet. The dark grinds of crushed seed and sediment formed a repulsive grit in a half-ring around the bottom of the bowl.

As I poured the slosh into what would become my ceremonial chalice--a plastic child’s cereal bowl with a built-in silly straw on the side--I learned how to drink it. Rather, it seemed to teach me how. Its nauseating properties demanded that it be downed fast at first, and then titrated for the rest of the session.

"Confessions of an EBay opium addict" by Peter Thompson, News Review, 31 March 2005

He just makes it sound so, well, attractive, doesn' t he? (And I wonder what fungicides those dried flowers may have been treated with, too. Some of them will give you liver cancer for sure, and maybe even Parkinson's as a bonus.) Television may be the opiate of the masses, but sometimes, it seems, opiates are the opiate of the masses.

Another thing opium tea slows down is the bowels. As an experienced pod-head, I learned to carry a Fleet two-pack before any major binge. (Those are the enemas in the green box.) Opium bunged things up the way eating a beach towel might. When things did finally make their exit, they felt like pine cones being forced through a tiny hole in a dry brick.

"Confessions of an EBay opium addict" by Peter Thompson, News Review, 31 March 2005

The Face of Erectile Dysfunction?

Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong

I was watching some male bicyclists rubbing their nether regions after a ride and thought two things: (1) cycling is turning into baseball, and (2) someday a lot of lawyers are going to make a pile of money off this problem. No, not the public self-fondling issue, silly. The perineal numbness and erectile dysfunction issue inherent in the defective design of bicycle seats. (I can also see the Viagara/Cialis ads featuring Lance Armstrong: this is the face of erectile dysfunction.) Anyway, here's a concise statement of the problem:

Bicycling and the Male Anatomy

Before we discuss the findings of the MMAS, a brief anatomy review should help explain how bicycling can contribute to or cause sexual dysfunction. When humans sit, they bear their weight on the ischial tuberosities, or what we have come to refer to as the "sit bones." The ischial tuberosities have no organs attached to them and no nerves or arteries; they are surrounded by the fat and muscle of the buttocks. This area is very well vascularized and allows humans to sit comfortably and safely for hours.

Unfortunately, most bicyclists bear their body weight on a bicycle seat that is not wide enough to support the ischial tuberosities. As a result, they wind up straddling the bike and, in effect, sitting on the internal part of their genitals.

"Erectile Dysfunction and Bicycling" by Irwin Goldstein, MD, Boston University Medical Campus

Cast of Pelvis on Bicycle Seat

This makes sense when you consider how the pelvis fit with a bicycle seat. But not to worry — engineering comes to the rescue!

BACKGROUND: Perineal numbness and erectile dysfunction are emerging as health concerns among bicyclists. Three studies indicate that between 7% and 21% of male cyclists experience genital area numbness after prolonged riding.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the effect of an experimental seat design on perineal numbness.

DESIGN: Fifteen experienced male cyclists exercised for 1 hour on a stationary spin cycle using either an experimental or standard bicycle seat. Several days later they repeated the trial using the other seat type. Before and after each 1-hour exercise session, perineal sensation was tested using the Weinstein Enhanced Sensory Testing (WEST)-hand esthesiometer. Cyclists were also asked to report their perception of numbness after each exercise bout.

RESULTS: Cyclists reported more numbness with the standard seat than with the experimental seat (79% vs 14%; P=0.009). Similarly, sensory testing at all perineal sites yielded greater hypoesthesia with the standard seat than with the experimental seat (P=0.05). This difference was most marked at the dorsal penis (P=0.04).

CONCLUSION: The experimental bicycle seat produced significantly less subjective and objective numbness than the standard cycle seat in 1 hour of stationary cycling. Bicycle seat design and innovation may decrease or eliminate perineal numbness.

"Using an Experimental Bicycle Seat to Reduce Perineal Numbness" by Kenneth S. Taylor, MD; Allen Richburg, MD; David Wallis, MD; Mark Bracker, MD, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, V30, No. 5, May 2002

Not surprisingly, it turns out that the effects of putting pressure on the region is a long-standing, no pun intended, problem:

As for the Scythians, however, who identified horseback riding as a possible cause of male impotence in the ninth century BCE, the relationship between bicycle riding and ED has become a matter of concern.

"Erectile Dysfunction and Bicycling" by Irwin Goldstein, MD, Boston University Medical Campus

So, for all the male cyclists who read this, get yourself a sensible seat before you're hanging out with the Bob Dole crowd.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Using an Experimental Bicycle Seat to Reduce Perineal Numbness" by Kenneth S. Taylor, MD; Allen Richburg, MD; David Wallis, MD; Mark Bracker, MD, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, V30, No. 5, May 2002
  2. "Erectile Dysfunction and Bicycling" by Irwin Goldstein, MD, Boston University Medical Campus
  3. Spongy Wonder (anti-compression seat)
  4. Hobson Seats (anti-compression seat)
  5. Specialized Saddles (anti-compression seat)
  6. Aero Saddle (anti-compression seat)
  7. Cheeko90 (anti-compression seat)

One Pill Makes You Larger…

Montage of ecstasy pills

Are you a veteran with PTSD? Have a pill you can't identify? Think it might be MDMA? Wait! Before you go popping them into your mouth like Hunter S. Thompson and going on a five-hundred mile road trip through Barstow, you might want to see what they actually are, instead of being a human guinea pig. (I know I have this problem all the time.) That's why Dance Safe does the hard work of tracking the myriad of different Ecstasy pills.

Now, I had no idea they came in so many shapes and colors, with so many different markers, colors, and shapes. (I clearly need to get out more and spend more time with teenagers waving lightsticks.)

Caution: Just because you have a pill that looks like one of the ones shown here does not mean it contains the same ingredients. There are often many versions of the same logo going around. Measuring the height and width of your pill with a pair of calipers like the ones shown here (available at any hardware store) can help you determine whether your pill is from the same batch as one we have tested. It is also helpful to test your pills with an Ecstasy testing kit and compare the color-change with the descriptions in the last column of the chart.

Laboratory Testing by Dance Safe

I think my favorite brand in the photograph has to be the "Think Different". (Third row, fourth pill from left.)

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are those goddamn animals?"

— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Yeah, I'm still bummed about HST.

The Agony and the… Ecstasy?

Ecstacy Pills

There's an old saying about letting not the left hand knoweth what the right doeth. That seems to be an adage well understood by the United States Government. The Guardian reports that ecstasy (MDMA) — that's right, the drug that the goverment tells us causes irreparable damage with a single dose — is now being investigated as a treatment for US soldiers with PTSD from Iraq and Afghanistan:

American soldiers traumatised by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are to be offered the drug ecstasy to help free them of flashbacks and recurring nightmares.

The US food and drug administration has given the go-ahead for the soldiers to be included in an experiment to see if MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, can treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

Scientists behind the trial in South Carolina think the feelings of emotional closeness reported by those taking the drug could help the soldiers talk about their experiences to therapists. Several victims of rape and sexual abuse with post-traumatic stress disorder, for whom existing treatments are ineffective, have been given MDMA since the research began last year.

Michael Mithoefer, the psychiatrist leading the trial, said: "It's looking very promising. It's too early to draw any conclusions but in these treatment-resistant people so far the results are encouraging.

"Ecstasy Trials for Combat Stress" by David Adam, The Guardian, 17 February 2005

Now, this can't be explained just as yet another aspect of the crappy health care that der Fuherer gives to the soldiers mutilated in his illegal wars. MDMA might work, and it is just one of a number of severely controlled or illicit substances being investigated for legitimate medical uses by reputable doctors:

The South Carolina study marks a resurgence of interest in the use of controlled psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs. Several studies in the US are planned or are under way to investigate whether MDMA, LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, can treat conditions ranging from obsessive compulsive disorder to anxiety in terminal cancer patients.

"Ecstasy Trials for Combat Stress" by David Adam, The Guardian, 17 February 2005

Why use MDMA? Simple:

"It's really tough doing psychotherapy with people who have anxiety disorders because when you get to the heart of the matter it causes a panic attack. For somebody who has a particularly gruesome time trying to talk about important end-of-life issues it bubbles into anxiety and nothing gets achieved," Halpern says.

"MDMA may be potentially useful in that it doesn't induce that reaction. We want to see if that can translate into decreased anxiety and meaningful increases in the quality of life for these people."

The alternative, he says, is heavy doses of sedatives such as Valium. "At the moment these people have a choice of being over-sedated and not having anxiety or being alert and suffering panic attacks."

Patients volunteering for the trial will receive up to 125mg of MDMA over two experimental sessions several hours apart - about the same or a little more than in a typical ecstasy tablet. They will also receive more conventional help during several non-drug sessions. Psychologists will assess their mental state before and after the trial to judge whether the drug has helped.

Rick Doblin, the founder and head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which funds the Harvard research, says the study could bring one step closer his goal of making MDMA a prescription medicine.

"Treating Agony With Ecstasy" by David Adam, The Guardian, 17 February 2005

I find it interesting that the FDA has approved this clinical trial given the "official" government view on MDMA:

MDMA is toxic to the human nervous system. Scientific studies, with both animal and human subjects, found that MDMA use produces long-lasting, perhaps permanent, damage to the neurons that release serotonin, and consequent memory loss. Because MDMA affects the serotonin system, which regulates mood as well as body temperature, use can result in a marked increase in body temperature (malignant hyperthermia) leading to muscle breakdown and kidney and cardiovascular system failure. The biggest short-term threat of MDMA is its ability to overload the heart, precipitating heart attacks or strokes, depending on the age of the user.

Moreover, MDMA use can result in mental confusion, anxiety and panic attacks, depression and paranoia. We now know that it leads to significant impairments in visual and verbal memory and may lead to impairments in other cognitive functions, such as the ability to reason or sustain attention. In a recent study, primates exposed to MDMA for four days experienced brain damage still present seven years later. Dr. Alan Leshner, Director of NIDA, explains, “[P]eople who take MDMA, even just a few times, will likely have long-term, perhaps permanent, problems with learning and memory.” An English study demonstrated preliminary proof that MDMA use during pregnancy causes serious birth defects.

America at Risk: The Ecstasy Threat, Donald Vereen, Deputy Director Office of National Drug Control Policy, Testimony before Senate Drug Caucus, 21 March 2001

Yet the deputy director admits that MDMA is safer than other problem drugs like cocaine or heroine. (I can't believe anyone goes to an emergy room with a marijuana overdose. "Like, doc, ya gotta help me, man, I, like, ate an entire pizza and then watched reruns of the, like, Brady Bunch and Family Feud all evening, man. Then I, like, totally ate a pint of Haagen-Daaz all by myself and took a nap.")

Nevertheless, emergency room mentions of MDMA are rare, compared to those of cocaine (168,763 mentions in 1999), marijuana/hashish (87,150 mentions in 1999), and heroin/morphine (84, 409 mentions in 1999). While the number of deaths reportedly related to MDMA use remains small (41 deaths in 1999 based on the Drug Abuse Warning Network, Medical Examiner Data), we should not underestimate the public health threat posed by this substance.

Ecstasy: Underestimating the Threat, Donald Vereen, Deputy Director Office of National Drug Control Policy, Testimony before Senate Drug Caucus, 25 July 2000

Omitted from their list is a drug that mutilates and kills staggering numbers of Americans each day: alcohol.

Alcohol Impaired Driving Statistics
Total Fatalities / Fatality Rates

1. 250,000 people have died in alcohol related accidents in the past 10 years.
2. Presently 25,000 people are killed each year in alcohol related accidents.
3. 500 people are killed each week in alcohol related accidents.
4. 71 people are killed each day in alcohol related accidents.
5. One American life is lost every 20 minutes in alcohol related auto crashes.
6. It is estimated that one out of every two Americans will be involved in an alcohol related accident in his or her lifetime.
7. In 1994, New Hampshire had 119 total highway fatalities, 42 were alcohol related (or 35.3% of the total). New Hampshire leads the nation with one of the lowest percentages of alcohol related fatalities.

Community Alcohol Information Program (CAIP), New Hampshire

So the next time some bible-thumping moron from red-state America rants about how ecstasy is killing people, explain that alcohol murders one American every twenty minutes. If terrorists, let alone illegal handguns used by criminals, killed seventy-one Americans a day, you can bet that just about everyone would be screaming for the government to do something. But alcohol? Naah. All the public says is, make mine a double.

Somethin 'bout those little pills
unreal the thrills they yield
until they kill a million brain cells

Now I need to go, who's gonna give me a ride to the after show (me!)
I hope that I have enough change so I can make my brain rearrange
I'm going down to La La Land
I hope to see ya soon in La La Land

— "La La Land" Green Velvet

Druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy…

Seal of the President of the United States of America

I'm not endorsing drug use, especially since I don't partake myself, but I truly don't care what people do in private as long as I don't have to watch it, pay for it, listen to it, or deal with the consequences of it. As far as I'm concerned, as long as the item sold was exactly as advertised and the purchaser was over the age of consent, drug use, illegal or otherwise, is purely a medical problem and never a legal one. Legalize it and tax the crap out of it to fund rehab, and stop burning taxpayer dollars on locking up people for longer sentences than rape and murder.

Having been a stodgy, grumpy old man and said that, I found the Drug Enforcement Agency's drug tips to be remarkably educational and deeply amusing. All their materials are, like the parts allegedly purchased by Iraq, "dual use".

When I were a lad, and dinosaurs roamed the earth, we were subjected to drug education. Over and over. It started in sixth grade when we were yelled at — by a rather large, angry man who coached sports — that if anyone offered us some "schoolboy" that we had to tell him immediately. And when Mr. Arnold said immediately, well, it was immediately.

The only problem with his admonition was that heroin probably hadn't been called "schoolboy" since he was in high school. And maybe not even then. I did remember the story, however, because having an authority figure, not matter how pathetic it seems now, screaming about it for an hour does tend to make an impression.

Now if you don't want to be some hipster doofus and get your terminology wrong — for example, it's not "doobers" anymore, it's now "trees" — you need to get your vernacular down and get with the program, dude. Or just step off. So check out the handy guide the Whitehouse has prepared so you can order what you want without sounding like the five-oh.

The Street Terms database contains over 2,300 street terms that refer to specific drug types or drug activity. The database is used by police officers, parents, treatment providers and others who require a better understanding of drug culture.

White House Drug Policy Guide to Street Drugs

You can also download a printable version (PDF) of "Street Terms". The printable version isn't pocketsized, though, so those who need information while mobile will have to find another option.

Yeah, I know. Our tax dollars at work. (Why can't my tax dollars fix mass transit?)

California is druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy
Druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy
Druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy

Down by law, right from the core
Down by law, right from the core
Down-down by-by law-law, right-right from-from the-the core-core

California is druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy...

"Kalifornia", You've Come A Long Way, Baby, Fatboy Slim

Idiots, Imbeciles, and Morons (Oh my!)

We live in a world populated by idiots, morons, and imbeciles. So much so that it seems a wonder the world doesn't grind to a halt. From time to time the question comes up about which is worse; an idiot, a moron, or an imbecile. We certainly use them often enough that correct usage matters. Very little remains of my years of study of French — beyond a deep appreciation for the art of kissing and the role of butter in brown sauces — but I do remember the insults "Espece d'idiot!" and "Imbecile!". Since proper usage matters, here's the inside scoop.

Photograph of George W. Bush


idiot — A person of profound mental retardation having a mental age below three years and generally being unable to learn connected speech or guard against common dangers.

American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary

Photograph of Howard "I Have a Scream" Dean


imbecile — A person of moderate to severe mental retardation having a mental age of from three to seven years and generally being capable of some degree of communication and performance of simple tasks under supervision.

American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary

Photograph of John Kerry


moron — A person of mild mental retardation having a mental age of from 7 to 12 years and generally having communication and social skills enabling some degree of academic or vocational education.

American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary

Imbecile comes from Old French meaning weak or feeble, which is derived from the Latin "imbcillus" meaning staff or rod. (Perhaps because of using a cane or staff due to physical weakness.) Moron is dervied from Greek "mron" meaning stupid or foolish. Idiot is derived from the Old French "idiote" which comes from the Latin "idita", which, in turn, comes from the Greek "idits" meaning private person. (Idios versus koinos for those of you who remember your Greek.)

So there you have it: idiot (mental age < 3 years), imbecile (3 years < mental age < 7 years), and moron (7 years < mental age < 12 years). The relative positions can be remembered using alphabetical order. These terms must never, of course, be applied to developmentally disabled people, with one exception: the current President of the United States of America. Oh yeah, and that moron who picked the wrong running mate and lost the election.

Third Rails Other Than Socialist Insecurity

License Plate with 'Third Rail' on it

Why not? Anything that gets the adrenalin moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol... but too many adrenalin rushes in any given time span has the same bad effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits.

Hunter S. Thompson
Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72, page 17

I was listening to the news and again heard the comment that Socialist Insecurity is the "third rail" of American politics. So I said to myself — yes, I'm back to talking to myself since I ran out of meds — and nobody ever wants to piss on that third rail either. Which got me thinking about the endless debate is it or isn't it an urban legend that doing so is fatal.

But first, what is this "third rail", anyway? Well, for those of you who live in Red State America where there are no underground trains, the subways have a third track running parallel to the rails that the train rests on. This rail is used only to deliver 625 volts (DC) to the subway cars through a collecting shoe. Sounds like a dumb idea? Well, it's pretty much the only way to distribute power if you don't want the overhead transfer approach used by most trains:

There were numerous methods of conducting electricity to car motors. Street railways relied on overhead trolleys and underground conduits of various designs. During the last two years of the nineteenth century the elevated railways, unfettered by crowded street conditions, began to adopt third rail conduction.

Design and Construction of the IRT: Electrical Engineering

But back to our topic of dumb things to urinate on. Third-rail injuries are, fortunately, rare. A paper by doctors at the Department of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, reports on a mere sixteen injuries over a fifteen-year period:

BACKGROUND: Railway and subway-associated electrical trauma is rare and typically involves high voltage (> 20,000) arc injuries. Not all rail systems utilize such high voltage. We report 16 cases of electrical trauma due to 600 V direct contact with subway 'third' rails. METHODS: A case series of injured patients presenting to Shriners Burns Institute, Boston or Massachusetts General Hospital between 1970 and 1995 was retrospectively analyzed. RESULTS: A total of 16 cases was identified. Among seven subway workers, the mechanism of rail contact was unintentional by a tool, a hand or by falling; no deaths occurred. Among nine non-occupational victims, injuries involved suicide attempts, unintentional falls, or risk-taking behavior. This group suffered greater burn severity, operative procedures, and complications; three deaths occurred.

"Electrical injury from subway third rails: serious injury associated with intermediate voltage contact." Burns, 1997 Sep;23(6):515-8

Ok. So has anyone died from urinating on the tracks? The short answer is, well, a strong maybe to a weak yes. But we are going to make you sit through the details uncovered on our quest for the truth. We quickly turned up an intriguing first possibility which is, at best, inconclusive and potentially erroneous.

The case of Lee v. Chicago Transit authority is often cited as demonstrating a need for legal reform:

On October 21, 1977, the morning preceding the accident, the decedent informed plaintiff that he planned to attend a party in the evening. Decedent apparently left the party after dark. He proceeded up Kedzie Avenue, a north/south street which intersected with the northwest-bound Ravenswood rapid transit line. At this point, he apparently proceeded into the CTA's right-of-way in order to urinate. In the process of doing so, he came into contact with the third rail, and suffered fatal injuries.

Brief filed by Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304

In addition to the signing, sharp triangular shaped boards had been installed between the sidewalk and the third rail to make it extremely difficult and awkward for a person to walk up the tracks. Nonetheless, the decedent walked up the tracks approximately 6 1/2 feet to the point where the third rail began. There, attempting to urinate, he was electrocuted.

Decision, Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304, 22 October 1992

The problem with Lee v. CTA is that nowhere in the briefs or decision does it actually cite direct contact of urine and the third rail as the cause of death. The closest the legal papers come to addressing the issue is the vague, "In the process of doing so, he came into contact with the third rail, and suffered fatal injuries." What were those fatal injuries? How were they obtained? Did he fall onto the third rail? Trip over it? Inquiring minds want to know!

So let's turn back to Gotham, which is what we care about, anyway, where we have the curious case of Joseph Patrick O'Malley:

Marshall Houta's [sic] Where Death Delights contains the sad story of one Joseph Patrick O'Malley, a man with two unfortunate habits: heavy drinking and wandering through subway tunnels.

One morning, O'Malley's mangled body was found in a tunnel 50 yards from the nearest station. He had apparently been struck and killed by a train.

But an autopsy turned up another cause: "The burns on the head of the penis and on the thumb and forefinger were obviously electrical burns....The stream of urine had come into contact with the 600 volts of the third rail. The current had coursed up the stream to cause the burns on his body as the electricity entered it.

"In all probability, he was dead from electrocution before the train ever hit his body."

Straight Dope

Ok, so that's the story. (By the way: the book is by Marshall Houts, not Houta, and the title is Where Death Delights: The Story of Dr. Milton Helpern and Forensic Medicine. Mistakes like these make me doubt the rest of Cecil Adam's — ok, Ed Zotti and staff's — work.) But would electricity really race up a stream of urine in practice? Can a stream of urine arc almost ten feet long and be continuous enough to electrocute someone? Can this story actually be true? Maybe:

The combination of water and electricity is notoriously volatile--so much so that there might be a built-in safety factor, i.e., the shock would be great enough to knock you down. This would spoil your aim and cut off the current before the electricity could do its lethal work on your heart muscles.

Straight Dope

I'm not buying it, but because of the distances involved, not the conduction factor. Remember, air insulates at about a thousand volts per millimeter, so the 625 volts of the subway can't jump the multi-millimeter gaps. (Urinating onto high-tension lines, however, is probably a bad idea.) Having said that, I recently watched the Mythbusters episode on this very myth where Adam urinates on an electric fence in the name of science. (Not to worry, paramedics were standing by. Kids, don't try this at home.) Adam, fortunately, does not have a shy bladder so he was able to perform on camera. (A career in fetish porn clearly awaits.) The question Mythbusters asked was:

Is it really that dangerous to answer the call of nature on the electrified third rail of a train track?

Episode 3: Barrel of Bricks, Pissing on the Third Rail, Eel Skin Wallet

The answer? Well, after Adam complained, "I've been painted gold and anal probed for you today... What else do you want?" the experiment proceeded forthwith. The conclusion was no, it doesn't, mostly because the stream of urine breaks up too much to conduct electricity. (Which seems to be confirmed by the sites listed at the end of this entry. But I'm getting ahead of myself.) I'm not sure that stream breakup is the sole reason. Yes, there is the air gap problem. (See above.) But my take was that the experiment is faulty: Adam simply wasn't grounded enough.

I've heard stories from people who grew up in farm country who'd apparantly heard stories about close encounters of a urinating kind with electric fences, mostly involving dogs that quickly learned to not do this. (Dogs make a lot of sense as the primary victims of electric fences because, like Wall Street bankers, they're always marking their territory and with four paws on the ground they are thoroughly grounded, completing the circuit.) But, once again, who knows how true those stories really are? And how, exactly, do they relate to the subways?

Ok. Let's get the data from the people who really do know. Years ago I read Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by William R. Maples which relates the finding by New York City Medical Examiner Milton Helprin that a man didn't commit suicide by leaping onto the subway tracks but was rather electrocuted when he answered a call of nature on the third rail. (Burns on the thumb, index finger, and glans clinched it. Ouch!) But I can't find the details of that online. (Dead trees are so hard to search!).

I was able to locate the relevant bit from Marshall Houts' book online, but don't know how accurate it is. (I haven't seen my copy of Where Death Delights or Dead Men Do Tell Tales in a long time. Both, like the thousands of other volumes in my library, are boxed up pending finding sufficient space.) So here's what Houts allegedly wrote about it:

Milton Heprin, longtime chief medical examiner in New York City, used to tell the story of a young Irishman seen standing on the far reaches of a subway platform by several witnesses. At a certain point he suddenly and silently pitched forward right in front of an oncoming train. He was found dead beneath the wheels, horribly mangles. But his family was Catholic and did not readily accept the initial conclusion of suicide. They were quite certain that their son had no reason to commit suicide, and in the end they were proved right. Helprin reexamined the mangled body and noticed tiny burn marks on the right thumb, index finger, and the tip of the penis. He was able to reassure the family their son had died accidentally. He had been urinating on the subway tracks, and the stream had accidentally reached the third rail. The arc of falling water, rich with salts favoring conduction, instantly became an arc of lethal electricity. The lad was probably dead before he hit the tracks.

Darwin Digest, quoting from Where Death Delights: The Story of Dr. Milton Helpern and Forensic Medicine by Marshall Houts

And now, the piece de la resistance:

It was surely one of the most bizarre deaths in the annals of New York history, let alone its medical history. An unidentified man was traveling the subways one day when he felt the urgent call of nature. Unable or unwilling to seek out a public toilet, he proceeded to relieve himself on the subway tracks. But alas, relief was not forthcoming. The arc of the man's urine hit the third rail, conducting a high-voltage electrical current back to his body and killing him instantly.

Newsday, 28 January 1988, Part II, page 3

But I can't fully confirm that, either. Finally, one more tidbit:

Just did an interview with Bob Lobenstein... the General Superintendent, power Operations, Traction Power Historian, Maintenance of Way - Electrical systems and all round good guy of the New York City Transit Department. NYCT are the guys who power the third Rail in NYC.

He claims that he has not only heard of the pissing on the third rail myth... he thinks it's true. From the day he began with NYCT his trainers and supervisors told him the story... although when asked he could not produce any names or paperwork. This seems to back our case that there are no cases on Medical record.

He gave us a demonstration at full power 625 Volts... 10,000 amps. with a squeeze bottle on a curcuit.. filled with saline water.

USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 14 July 2003

So where were we... ah yes... the third rail experiment... well he managed to get a connection up to three feet from the rail. Unfortunately I think he hadn't taken into consideration the fact that his squeeze bottle... under pressure from two hands... was capable of producing a far higher pressure urine stream that is feasible for the average human. We measured a urine stream and noted that on average a male produces around 200ml in 14 - 18 seconds. At this rate the stream breaks up in a little over six inches.

By the way I had a message from Danny Burstein that I though you giys might be interested in hearing. Danny, I hope you don't mind.

Danny said that he had heard of a charred member.. the product of third rail pissing... in the collection of the NYC medical examiners office. We dutifully made the calls and to date have not received a conclusive answer. The NYCMEO claims that their collection was transferred to the Smithsonian some years ago. They had no recollection of the charred member.

USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 20 July 2003

So there you have it. Urinating onto the third rail may or may not kill you if you do it in the subway. It will, however, destroy your career if you do it in Washington DC.

After all, Social Security has been called the third rail of American politics, but the President has grabbed onto this rail and insisted that it be discussed.

Dr. N. Gregory Mankiw, Chairman Council of Economic Advisers, Annual Meeting of the National Association of Business Economists, 15 September 2003

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Electrical injury from subway third rails: serious injury associated with intermediate voltage contact." Burns, 1997 Sep;23(6):515-8
  2. Straight Dope
  3. Darwin Digest
  4. Design and Construction of the IRT: Electrical Engineering
  5. Brief filed by Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304
  6. Decision, Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304, 22 October 1992
  7. USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 14 July 2003
  8. USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 20 July 2003
  9. Dead Men Do Tell Tales; The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Antrhopologist by William R. Maples, 1994
  10. Where Death Delights: The Story of Dr. Milton Helpern and Forensic Medicine by Marshall Houts, 1967
  11. Autopsy: The Memoirs of Milton Helpern, The World's Greatest Medical Detective by Milton Helpern, 1977

Help! I’ve Glued My Fingers Together! Intentionally!

Packages of Commercial Cyanacrylate Glue

Common Cyanoacrylate Glues

I've been using cyanoacrylate glue (superglue) — commonly referred to as Krazy Glue, even though this is a trademark of Borden — for years to glue small cuts together, particularly paper cuts and the, fortunately rare, minor kitchen accidents. (I've read that mountain climbers use superglue to repair the rips and tears in their hands, and that windsurfers and sailors use it to repair ripped-off callouses and blisters; didn't they ever hear of gloves?)

Using it for unintended purposes like injury repair is easy: just hold the edges of the wound together, apply a dab with a toothpick and forget about it. (Disclaimer: do this at your own risk. If you manage to glue your hand to your genitalia, that's you with the problem, not me. If you slather it all over your fingers and stuff it in your nose, well, all I can say is: that'll teach you. So if you ruin your life, that's too bad. I ain't payin' you, or your lawyer, for it. As with anything in life, don't be stupid and talk to a doctor or someone with a brain before doing anything risky. Back to our story.) The result heals faster than doing nothing, and with fewer complications. Anyway, I was having a discussion about this with a friend who said that Krazy Glue wasn't the same as surgical glues like Dermabond. And so I set out to see if it was the same, as I steadfastly maintain.

The history of cyanoacrylate glues is interesting, even if you aren't a chemist or a jilted lover. (Gluing together body parts of the unfaithful is an urban legend.) During World War II, Harry Coover was trying to make a clear plastic for gunsights, since it had cost and weight advantages over glass. (Coover is an interesting fellow; he ended up with 460 patents.) His experiments turned up less than ideal results: "I was working with some acrylate monomers that showed promise. But everything they touched stuck to everything else. It was a severe pain."

Coover, Discoverer of Cyanacrylate Glue

Harry Coover
Discoverer of Cyanacrylate Glue

Coover didn't return to cyanoacrylates until nine years later, while attempting to create a heat-resistant polymer for the canopies on high-speed jets. One of the students working on the project accidentally glued together some very expensive — at the time $700, which was probably a month's pay for an Ph.D. engineer — optical prisms. Waving off the student's apologies, Coover excitedly started gluing together everything in sight, because he realized that, unlike other adhesives, this one rapidly bonded without pressure, heat, curing activators, or special preparation. Both properties turned out to be particularly useful in medicine, especially on the battlefield. (Ever watch a surgeon try to sew a piece of liver or lung tissue back together?).

Coover was also the first to recognize and patent cyanoacrylates as human tissue adhesives. These cyanolate adhesives are used in many sutureless surgeries such as the rejoining of veins, arteries, and intestines, ophthalmic surgeries, dental surgeries, uncontrollable bleeding and the repair of soft organs such as the liver and spleen. Coover's adhesive was first used in the Vietnam War to temporarily patch the internal organs of badly injured soldiers until conventional surgery could be performed. Since the 1970's, tissue adhesives have been used for a variety of surgical applications including middle ear surgery, bone and cartilage grafts, repair of cerebrospinal fluid leaks, and skin closure.

Hobard and William Smith colleges

Cyanoacrylate adhesives are formed from monomers (short building blocks) which are kept in a slightly acidic solution which prevents them from polymerizing, or linking together, into long, linear chains. All they need to cure is a weak base, like the microscopic amounts of moisture present on virtually every surface. Some items to be bonded, like wood, are naturally acidic which slows down curing, so special activators are used to start the process.

The cyanide (CN) groups on the molecule are highly polar, which means they enthusiastically grab onto things like skin. Polyethylene, which is what they make the bottles from, doesn't have any polar groups, for obvious reasons. (If you have a glue that sticks to everything, what do you keep it in?) Interestingly enough, the cyanoacrylate adhesives are made by making the cured (polymer) version and then cracking into pieces (monomer), while keeping it in an acidic solution so it can't recure (repolymerize). This is why acetone removes the cured adhesive — it breaks the bonds in the polymer. But, enough chemistry. (You still with us?) Back to the question: can cyanoacrylate glues be used instead of surgical glue? Ok, ok, we'll get to that right now!

The big difference between glue for objects (Krazy Glue) and glue for people (Dermabond) are:

  • Dermabond is monomeric 2-octyl cyanoacrylate, a weaker bonding agent than superglue which is typically ethyl 2-cyanoacrylate.
  • Dermabond comes in a sterile, single-use container.
  • Dermabond is colored with D&C Violet No. 2 to make it easier to see after it has been applied. (Normal superglue is clear.).
  • Superglue costs about $2 per tube; Dermabond is over $20. (Plus the hospital markup which can push it close to $70 per tube.)

Aside from the color, price, and single-use issues — bacteria don't live in cyanoacrylate — what does the formulation difference really mean? For starters, superglue is stiffer and liberates more heat when applied. This isn't an issue for "paper cuts", of course; I've never felt any heat at all. The formulation is basically safe but the surgical variant does have slightly different properties. So, the answer? Well, let's look at the history and the FDA's perspective. (I said I'd answer the question, ok?)

Although cyanoacrylate glues were useful on the battlefield, the FDA was reluctant to approve them for civilian use. In part, this was due to a tendency of the early compounds (made from "methyl-2-cyanoacrylate") to irritate the skin as the glue reacted with water and cured in the skin, releasing cyanoacetate and formaldehyde. A compound called "butyl-2-cyanoacrylate" was developed to reduce toxicity, but suffered from brittleness and cracking a few days after application. Finally an improved cyanoacrylate glue was developed for medical applications called "2-octyl-cyanoacrylate." This compound causes less skin irritation and has improved flexibility and strength — at least three times the strength of the butyl-based compound.

The Straight Dope

So, there you have it. The compounds are different, yet similar. The word on the street is that for small cuts the two are equivalent, but if you are repairing a lacerated liver or closing a large incision, the medical version is likely superior. (That's the one-line conclusion that you cared about, right?) The Straight Dope has a nice writeup of cyanoacrylates as surgical glues.

A "Milli Vanilli" President

During the debates, and shortly thereafter, numerous sites reported on the peculiar bulge seen in the center of Bush's back. Now, if you'll recall, the Bush camp created rules of engagement specifically prohibiting cameras from showing either candidate from the back. This reasoning behind this peculiar restriction now becomes clear.

The general view, at least among non-Republicans who saw the video, was that the bulge was a radio receiver, allowing Bush's advisors to supplement his demonstrably meager intellect. See, for example,, Salon (Bush's Mystery Bulge, The Bulge Returns, Getting to the Bottom of the Bulge, NASA Photo Aanalyst: Bush Wore a Device During Debate), Mother Jones (Was Bush Wired? Sure Looks Like It), and even the New York Daily News (Bush's Back is Front & Center).

The "official" explanations were that the bulge was simply bad tailoring or a bullet-proof vest. Both "explanations" were later disavowed; after all, it clearly wasn't a selectively-bulky vest and his bespoke tailors are not so incompetent. (George de Paris knows, after all, how to make an excellent suit or clients wouldn't pay five grand — and up — for one.) (Besides, Bush doesn't wear a vest to debates or inside the Whitehouse, and every one of his suits can't have singularly bad tailoring.) In any event, the bulge also shows up in numerous official photos on the Website.

In the Whitehouse

Tooling Around Crawford

While the major media has killed the story, the generally accepted view — prior to now, that is — that Bush uses a miniature radio receiver in his ear to receive instructions from trusted aides. This perfectly explains the "let me finish" comment Bush made during the debates when nobody the audience could hear was interrupting him, and his occasional ability to recite facts and figures in a manner totally his usual rambling, incoherent, off-the-cuff self. The obvious proof was the bulge in his back.

The initial discussion focused on proving that the bulge wasn't a clothing or lighting artifact. That's easily done; digitally-enhanced images created by a former NASA expert show that Bush is clearly wearing something under his suit, and it probably isn't from Victoria's Secret.

Image-Enhanced Debate Photograph

Wireless earphones are widely available for public speakers, news anchors, etc. One common receiver is the "Receive-A-Cue". (In Bush's case it should be "Receive-a-Clue".)

Receive-A-Cue Receiver

Throughout this whole story two things has never made any sense to me: why is the receiver so large and why is it affixed to the center of his upper back. Why not stash it at the waist, the same way the Secret Service do? Now the truth is coming out: Bush has a life-threatening heart arythmia which might very well have derailed his stealing the election. The bulge is now believed to be a defibrillator. This may be the truth behind the alleged "choking on a pretzel" incident; it wasn't a pretzel, it was his bum ticker.

The outline of the bulge perfectly matches the outline of the LIFECOR Wearable Cardioverter Defibrillator; compare the two and see if you aren't convinced. Then factor in that Bush didn't have a medical exam until after the election and tell me I'm hallucinating or in need of an aluminum-foil helmet.

Now, the original story about the bulge being a radio receiver makes me wonder if someone might have been nosing around too close to the truth and so, in a style of disinformatzia familiar to the follower of Soviet history, Karl Rove leaked the radio-receiver story to cover up the bigger story.

Naaah. That's too paranoid, even for me. (And smart as Rove is, he isn't that smart.) But this still is one serious rabbit hole to go down...

Read The Story


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