Stories tagged the horror

Jan
13
2008

An old German graveyard: Probably swimming with grave wax.
An old German graveyard: Probably swimming with grave wax.Courtesy whimsical truth
Check this out: Germany’s dead bodies have stopped rotting, and are instead turning into gross, waxy corpses. Not all the bodies, I suppose, but enough that it’s becoming a serious problem.

Now this alone would be pretty unsettling anywhere, because who wants waxy corpses just stacking up everywhere, but it’s even more of an issue with the Germans, because German cemeteries often have the practice of “recycling” cemetery plots every 15 to 20 years. In the past 15 to 20 years was plenty of time for a body to more or less completely decompose. Unfortunately, that formula doesn’t quite work for the graveyards of today.

For a body to decompose quickly and fully, it needs oxygen to be present, and a little moisture (but not too much). The problem in Germany is that when many communities created their newest cemeteries, they purchased cheap soil with high clay content from local farmers. This clay-heavy soil drains very poorly, keeps the bodies cool, and prevents oxygen from reaching them. And what happens then? Instead of rotting into good old-fashioned grave dirt, the bodies turn into a “gray-white, paste-like, soft mass.” Oh, man, yuckers! But that’s not all – given time, the pasty bodies eventually solidify into a hard, durable, wax-like substance that “when knocked with a spade… sound hollow.”

As fun as it must be for them to go around whacking dead bodies with spades, Germany obviously can’t allow this problem to continue (although I noticed that the most serious potential problem, zombie uprising, was entirely ignored by the article, I expect this factors heavily into the German government’s concern over the situation). The best solution would be to undertake some serious soil reconditioning, and recreate graveyards as decomposition friendly areas. There happens to be a Swiss company that offers just such a service, replacing the poor quality earth with a “custom mixture of topsoil, woodchips and gravel.” This is awfully expensive however, and pretty messy, what with the digging up whole graveyards thing, and so other solutions are being sought simultaneously. Cement burial chambers, for instance, are becoming a hot selling item with Germany’s wealthier dead. These pre-fab sarcophagi are meant to allow for the sort of decomposition prohibited by the poor soil, but studies have shown that they generally don’t work out as intended. The chambers are made to be watertight, and when the “contents” are later examined, researchers have found that not even the flower arrangements rot inside them. What ends up happening is that the bodies just dry out and “take on the leathery consistency of mummies.” As one researcher describes it, “The soft tissue of the corpses was partially still very recognizable, although its volume was significantly reduced.”

The Swiss have offered yet another solution as well – a fungal extract called “Rapid Rot” designed to accelerate decomposition. While Rapid Rot has obvious potential for practical jokes, cemetery officials remain skeptical, preferring to wait a few years to see if the product really works.

What about all that? Did I already write “yuckers”? Oh, I did? And it’s not a real word? Fair enough – then what about all this: I got bored writing that last paragraph and looked up “grave wax.” Apparently grave wax, or “adipocere,” is made up of insoluble fatty acids left over from our fatty dead bodies. These fats have saponified, which is to say, turned to soap! Awesome! The German bodies are essentially huge, disgusting, person-shaped bars of death soap! That would give you a clean feeling like nothing else.

There’s apparently a museum in Pennsylvania with the adipocere body of an extremely obese woman, called “The Soap Lady,” who, let’s see… yes! I found a picture of her! You’re probably already looking at her. Oh, man.

The Soap Lady: Looking horrified, horrifying.
The Soap Lady: Looking horrified, horrifying.Courtesy Mendrakis
If you’re up for it after ol’ Soap Lady, here’s a site completely dedicated to all things adipocere. I honestly don’t want to, but I’m going to look at the site first, to see if it’s safe. Ok…

Well, the site uses phrases like “cheese-like substance,” “pungent odor similar to ammonia,” and “rank and cheesy, or sweet smelling” (I like to think my adipocere would be sweet smelling). There are kind of a lot of references to cheese, unfortunately. And the photos are… checking… eh, pretty gross. Very Dawn of the Dead, actually.

Have at it, Buzzketeers, and remember that, when you die, there’s a chance that your body could be “heated to a plastic-like state, melted, clarified, or burned,” and that your consistency may vary, “from being gooey as with a mushy bar of soap, to semi-soft like with a young cheddar cheese, to hard and grainy, as with candle wax.”

Jan
07
2008

The golf ball-eating snake prepares to strike again: Unusual markings for a python, but I'm no herpetologist.
The golf ball-eating snake prepares to strike again: Unusual markings for a python, but I'm no herpetologist.Courtesy Brent and MariLynn
When I was little (and, um, still) I had this totally irrational fear of getting a bowling ball stuck in my throat.

How could this be? I don’t know. I seem to remember someone telling me once that a man in Russia got into the Guinsess Book of Records for swallowing a bowling ball, which is obviously untrue. There’s not a human mouth on the planet large enough to allow a bowling ball into the throat, not to mention the fact that my neck is about half the thickness of a bowling ball anyway. And yet… The horrible image of a Russian man with a bowling ball lodged behind his Adam’s apple returns to me every so often and just about throws me into a cold sweat. What would you do if you got a bowling ball stuck in your throat? You couldn’t spit it back up (because your mouth is too small), and obviously you couldn’t swallow it, because then it would just be stuck in your stomach, which might even be worse. Oh my.

Why was I even thinking about that? Again, I don’t know.

Hey, look at this interesting story about a python that swallowed four golf balls, and got them stuck in its stomach.

Apparently, a couple in New South Wales had put the balls in their chicken coop to coax a hen into nesting in a particular spot, and were surprised to find, not long after, a very lumpy looking python and no golf balls. They then “rushed the reptile to nearby Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary,” where the balls were surgically removed by a veterinarian. Maybe there’s a serious golf ball shortage in Australia.

The article also helpfully provides links to several recent stories about pythons swallowing such indigestible objects as pregnant sheep, alligators and queen-sized electric blankets (a nice warm meal, I suppose).

It looks like pythons are ready for the remedial class of life.

Nov
11
2007


Just chocolate milk: Delicious chocolate milk. (image courtesy of goatopolis on flickr.com)
What’s that? You aren’t up on “jenkem” yet? It’s only the next big thing in chemical abuse, my friends. What exactly is it? Oh, we’ll get to that.

A little background first – “jenkem,” as far as one can tell, originated in Zambia, where it was used as a substitute for other inhalant drugs, like gasoline or glue (“Genkem” is an African glue brand, and “Jenkem” is thought to have derived from that as a generalized term for inhalants). Jenkem seems to have first surfaced in the mid-nineties, with several periodicals at the time reporting its abuse among street children in Lusaka, Zambia.

But, again, what is it? Well… uh… basically, jenkem is the collected gas of fermented human excrement and urine.

The gas supposedly acts as a powerful hallucinogen. The exact active components of jenkem aren’t known because, surprise surprise, no organization has yet put much research into the psychoactive effects of poop gas. It is likely, however, that the inhaled methane and hydrogen sulfide gas may play a role in jenkem’s physiological effects.

As you might already have guessed, a drug like jenkem is a symptom of utter poverty and social desperation. That jenkem caught on in a place like Lusaka, where AIDS and poverty have created tens of thousands of street children, is, sadly, perhaps not entirely surprising. It does not seem very probable, however, that a drug like jenkem would find much of a foothold in the United States, which is why its appearance in the news of the last couple weeks has been particularly interesting.

Last week, multiple local news crews across the country, um, got wind of a leaked sheriff’s bulletin from Collier County, Florida, warning of the use of jenkem among American teens. Stations began running stories warning parents of this “dirty new drug,” and urging them, in at least one story, to “wait up for them (their children) at night and not let their kids go to bed until they have seen them and smelled their breath.” A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency even made the statement that “there are people in America trying [Jenkem].”

This storm of reaction is remarkable in that, despite the news stories and the DEA warning, no one has actually seen any direct evidence of the use of jenkem in America.

The original Collier County bulletin, it turns out, was based on one Florida teenager’s “trip report” posted on a website, with pictures of himself doing jenkem and a description of its effects. The kid, however, recently admitted that it was a hoax, and that the “jenkem” pictured was made using “flour, water, beer, and Nutella.” Probably not delicious, but not jenkem either.

Organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, as well as websites that specialize in documenting psychedelic experiences, admit that it’s possible that a few individuals in the U.S. may have experimented with something like jenkem, but are extremely skeptical of the claim that it has become anything more than that. The Partnership for a Drug Free America stated that they had not even heard of jenkem.

Pretty much everything about jenkem reeks of an urban legend.

Hallucinogenic drugs can be extremely dangerous, it’s never a good idea to get sewage close to your mouth, and while hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas) can be tolerated at low levels, higher concentrations (like, say, from huffing it) can be deadly poisonous. So, as bizarre as something like jenkem sounds, one shouldn’t forget how dangerous it is.

Even so, it seems like this reaction to the supposed appearance of jenkem in the U.S. had less to do with the actual danger of the substance than it did with the media’s love of scare stories, and a strange sort of “moral panic” over a vaguely perceived drug threat.

Fermented sewage. Weird.

Salon.com has a pretty good article on the whole thing here.

Oct
29
2007

A Rhesus monkey: Full of hate, a monkey's most powerful emotion.  (phot courtesy of OskarN on flickr.com)
A Rhesus monkey: Full of hate, a monkey's most powerful emotion. (phot courtesy of OskarN on flickr.com)
A week ago Sunday, the Deputy Mayor of New Delhi, India, died as a result of being attacked by monkeys.

Deputy Mayor S.S. Bajwa was attacked by Rhesus Macaque monkeys on the balcony of his own home. Overwhelmed by the monkey pack, Bajwa fell from the balcony, and sustained severe head injuries upon impact with the ground.

Rhesus Macaques generally live in “troops” of about 20 individuals (a group this size is technically referred to as “pretty scary”), but troops have been known to be as large as 180 individuals (technically “super scary”). In addition to small but thriving colonies in Florida and South Carolina Rhesus monkeys can be found across southern Asia from Afghanistan to China. They are particularly populous in cities like New Delhi, where they have overrun many public buildings and neighborhoods. Coincidentally, these locations have recently been added to my list of places I don’t want to live: Florida; South Carolina; New Delhi all of southern Asia.

Part of the problem in New Delhi is that some devout Hindus consider the Macaques to be manifestations of the monkey god Hanuman, and encourage their occupation of public places by feeding them peanuts and bananas. Unafraid of humans, even Deputy Mayors, the Macaques will sometimes bite or steal food from people.

Rhesus Macaques are also extensively used as biological and medical test subjects, leading some (me) to theorize that this may have been a misguided revenge killing. What’s more, Macaques have accumulated significant space travel experience (NASA launched a bunch in the 50s and 60s, and Russia sent one into space as recently as 1997), and have even had their genes spliced with those of a jellyfish, making them powerful and unpredictable potential foes to humanity.

In an effort to deal with the Rhesus situation, Delhi authorities have employed monkey catchers who use langurs, “a larger and fiercer kind of monkey,” to scare away or catch the Macaques. Nothing stops a dangerous monkey problem like “larger and fiercer” monkeys.

Speaking of deadly arms races, last week was also the 45th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. Will humanity never learn?

Oct
29
2007

She's safe, but for how long?: As you read this, government agencies are developing mind-invasion technology that not even aluminum foil can stop.  (photo courtesy of jspaw on flickr.com)
She's safe, but for how long?: As you read this, government agencies are developing mind-invasion technology that not even aluminum foil can stop. (photo courtesy of jspaw on flickr.com)
The Washington Post has given me something new to try not to think about during every waking hour in a recent article on robotic insects and their potential uses as spies.

At recent political events and rallies in New York and Washington there have been several suspiciously similar sightings reported of large, robot-like insects hovering just above the participants, sparking paranoia that the Department of Homeland Security might be using high-tech surveillance tools to spy on American citizens.

That last paragraph was a very long sentence, with at least one extended example of alliteration.

It has also been argued that these are, in fact, sightings of dragonflies. And, as strong as my inherent distrust of governments and insects is, when you compare the number of tiny government robots out there to the number of actual insects, this second theory seems pretty likely. Nonetheless, the Post article offers a pretty interesting look at some of the developing “robobug” technologies out there.

The Defense Department documents at least 100 models of flying robots in use today, ranging in size from something like a small plane to a songbird. The conventional rules of robotics, however, don’t work very well on a smaller scale, so making a robot as tiny as an insect is much more complicated. The CIA developed a four-winged dragonfly-like device as early as the 70s, which flew under the power of a tiny gas engine, but was abandoned due to its inability to cope with crosswinds. Several universities have since created palm-sized fliers, and a team at Harvard got a tiny fly-like robot airborne in July, its tiny, laser-cut wings flapping at 120 beats per second. It weighed only 65 milligrams, but it couldn’t be piloted, and was tethered by a power-supply cord.

Other researchers, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have directed their efforts towards creating cyborg bugs, inserting microchips into the pupae of moths. The thought is that the nerves of the moths could grow into the chips, and that they could then be controlled and fitted with a tiny camera (or whatever). DARPA also has a similar project with beetles, where the muscles of the insects would generate the energy needed to power the various instruments they could carry. At a symposium in August, a DARPA project manager said of the research, "You might recall that Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic 'Lord of the Rings' used a moth to call in air support. This science fiction vision is within the realm of reality." Even assuming that the DARPA spokesman wasn’t referring to a giant magical eagle when he mentioned “air support,” this is a very funny statement.

There are even rumors that the CIA and other organizations have developed insect robots that exist in your brain and prevent you from being productive by forcing you to think about them constantly. These robots are manufactured and reproduced by your own imagination, and, reportedly, can only be dealt with by chemical abuse and other hobbies.

Oct
17
2007

A typical American family: 2.5 kids and a Roomba.  (photo courtesy of mhaithaca on flickr.com)
A typical American family: 2.5 kids and a Roomba. (photo courtesy of mhaithaca on flickr.com)
A wave of human-robot love is sweeping the nation, says a recent Georgia Tech study, with a scale and intensity not seen since the release of Short Circuit 2. And what’s behind this wave of the future, as it crashes on the sunny, unsuspecting beaches of the present? Robotic vacuums. That’s right – little Roombas have crept into the lonely chambers of our hearts, and are sucking them clean.

One can immediately understand some of the attraction to “robovacs”: like a good, “real” friend, they are small, obsessively tidy, and can be purchased. Beki Grinter of Georgia Tech’s College of Computing thinks that the phenomenon goes beyond this, however. Grint began her study when she started seeing online photos of people dressing up their Roombas, and soon found that people were naming the vacuums, taking them on vacation with them, and, in at least one case, introducing them to their parents.

Roomba owners were even modifying their homes to make the Roombas’ “lives” easier; some bought new rugs; some sought out furniture and appliances with higher floor clearance; and some went so far as to pre-clean their floors to make things easier for the Frisbee-shaped robot.

Owners even tolerated Roombas with mechanical failures and functional problems (earlier models tended to break more often), because “they love their robot enough.”

The study seemed to suggest that, among other things, things that are designed to be somewhat emotionally engaging don’t have to as reliable. (This is, coincidentally, one of my mottos.)

One can also infer from the study that the average American family is finally ready to accept robot helpers into their home. Just think: Roomba today, Johnny 5 tomorrow, the Svedka vodka robot the next day… and maybe Roomba again the day after that.

Sep
10
2007

A moray eel: Is any caption needed, really? Look at it.  (photo by richard ling on flickr.com)
A moray eel: Is any caption needed, really? Look at it. (photo by richard ling on flickr.com)
When I was a very little boy, I lived on the island of Maui. I remember going to the ocean, on a couple of occasions, and floating around in a little inflatable raft by myself (I was tethered to a parent, but the boat was mine). The raft had a transparent bottom, so I could see through into the water. It was great! I could see fish, and sea turtles, and coral, and who knew what might be in the coral? Starfish? Sea anemones? Eels?

And with that thought – eels – my fun would be over. I pictured huge spotted eels hiding behind fans of coral, or watching from the dark spaces between rocks, just waiting for the perfect ambush, waiting to tear me and my little boat to shreds. Bleh.

I never actually saw any eels, of course, and I’ve since convinced myself that the fear was irrational. Eels are no creepier than any other animal, when you really think about it, right?

Wrong! Wrong wrong wrong! Wrong! Eels are way creepier than your average animal, and just because you live hundreds and hundreds of miles away from the ocean, there’s no reason you shouldn’t obsess over them in fear. A recent discovery has confirmed this, as far as I’m concerned.

Remember the aliens in “Aliens”? Obviously. Remember how they had big scary mouths… and then another little mouth inside? Well, it turns out that moray eels are just like this. Inside their normal jaws (which are covered in large, backward-pointing teeth) morays have another set of jaws called “pharyngeal jaws,” which are smaller and move independently to capture prey and pull it towards the eel’s stomach. No other animal can do this. Except aliens, of course.

Now, I’m sure moray eels are noble and graceful creatures, and a vital part of the ocean ecosystem, but check out wikipedia’s article on them. It’s like every thing about them was designed to be kind of creepy. Up to thirteen feet long? Okay. Cooperative hunting? Er, good. Bacteria covered teeth? Um, I try not to judge. Pharyngeal jaws? Oh, God.

I bet they spend all waking hours thinking about how to kill me. Cooperatively.

Aug
18
2007

Flesh-eating protozoans, heavily magnified: Actual pictures of the various flesh-eating infections are gross. Super gross.  (photo by Grant Neufeld on flickr.com)
Flesh-eating protozoans, heavily magnified: Actual pictures of the various flesh-eating infections are gross. Super gross. (photo by Grant Neufeld on flickr.com)
Flesh eating bacteria ranks very highly on my list of irrational childhood fears. It’s below my fear of the sun suddenly going dark, but above killer bees, fire ants, lava, and swallowing sharp metal things.

However, a new study shows that, with the rising global temperature, cases flesh eating disease will be increasing and, perhaps, spreading into countries in which it had never before been an issue. Consequently, this particular fear has been upgraded from “irrational,” to “mostly irrational.”

With horribly painful, potentially fatal, and really gross-looking infections now imminent for all of us, I thought it would be worthwhile to swing the spotlight of attention over to…

Flesh Eating Disease!

It turns out that what we call “flesh eating disease” can be caused any one of several different infections. Necrotizing fasciitis (flesh eating bacteria) can refer to Vibrio vulnificus, Clostridium perfringens, or Bacteroides fragilis, but most often Group A streptococcus is the culprit. It starts at the site of a cut or bruise, and is very painful but generally has no visible symptoms early on. If the infection is shallow, swelling, redness, and heat will develop shortly, sometimes accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting. Skin color will then darken, and blisters will develop. This is followed by the death of the affected subcutaneous tissues. In severe cases this all can happen within several hours, and in such instances the death rate is about 30%.

The bacteria don’t actually eat your flesh, which is a relief. Instead, they release toxins that cause your body to destroy itself (T-cells, cytokines, over-stimulated macrophages, blah blah blah).

The condition is treated by antibiotics, amputation of affected organs, and the removal of necrotic tissue. Also, by denial.

The specific variety of flesh eating disease that this study focuses on is slightly different.
It’s actually caused by a protozoan parasite and is transmitted by the bites of sand flies. It’s called “leishmaniasis.” Leishmaniasis, unlike necrotizing fasciitis, often won’t exhibit symptoms until weeks or months after infection. Raised, red lesions appear, and then burst. In cases where the lesions are diffuse, the condition can appear like leprosy. Mucous membranes can also be infected, resulting in the destruction of the nose and lips. The infection can be fatal if the parasite spreads to vital organs.

The leishmaniasis carrying sand flies are usually found only in tropical climates, but as global temperatures rise, the flies will be able to survive in countries that were never before suitable for them. Travel and tourism will also facilitate the spread of the parasite.

The disease is found in the Middle East, South Asia, North Africa, and Central and South America, and has even been reported in southern Texas and southern Europe. Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have been affected by the disease as well, with over 650 cases of the “Baghdad Boil” being reported since the invasion in 2003.

The moral here? It’s that flesh eating disease is exactly as gross as you imagined. And that you should wear plenty of insect repellent when sand flies are around.