Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mad science: Body disposal pro tip.

Without fail, the same issue comes up after Thanksgiving year after year. If you're anything like me, you're looking at the aftermath of your Thanksgiving feast, scratching your head, and wondering, "How the heck do I dissolve a human body? And how long will it take?"

Happily, this year, the social science blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree has go us covered.

Below is the entire copy the article, but you'll need to go to the source to follow all the links:

Assassins for Mexican-American drug cartels have been dissolving their victims' bodies in chemicals, according to a piece published Tuesday in the New York Times. The process is known colloquially as making pozole, in reference to a traditional Mexican stew. It can take several hours to make a pot of pozole. How long does it take to dissolve a human body?

About the same, with the right chemicals and equipment. The assassins typically use sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, strong bases commonly known as lye. (The Times story misidentified their reagent of choice as an acid.) Heated to 300 degrees, a lye solution can turn a body into tan liquid with the consistency of mineral oil in just three hours. If your kettle isn't pressurized, you won't be able to heat the solution much above the boiling point of water, 212 degrees, and it might take an additional hour or two to complete the process. Narco-hit men did not pioneer this technique. Adolph Luetgert, known in his day as the "Sausage King of Chicago," dumped his wife into a boiling vat of lye in 1897, then burned what was left. Police eventually found bone fragments in the factory's furnace.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Movies: Could Obamacare have prevented the Jigsaw killings?

It will serve to be sufficient review of the allegedly final Saw flick that, as the movie slumped towards the final scene of a seemingly interminable 91 minutes, I had time to wonder: Would Obama style health care reform have prevented the creation of Jigsaw, the conceptual franchise-like serial-killer meme embraced by the various murderers of the film series?

Admittedly, it's a bizarre idea, but not one without merit.

Let's review the convoluted origin of the Jigsaw meme. Start with John Kramer, a seemingly wealthy architect or engineer. John cooks up the basic Jigsaw concept when he weaves together three key motivational threads: 1) a sort of gonzo moral hyper-libertarianism that arises from a miscarriage his wife suffers, the product of an unintentional act on the part of a petty criminal/junkie; 2) an obsession with the idea that the precious gift of life is being squandered by the majority of people, a product of being diagnosed with inoperable cancer; and 3) a messianic view himself as the man who has a teachable insight into the value of life and how this value can be understood only through facing death in a test-situation, a product of a failed single-auto accident suicide attempt John made after losing his wife and learning about the cancer diagnosis.

Let's assume that these three events are all necessary conditions for the creation of Jigsaw. If John suffers Event 1 without 2 and 3, he becomes a Glenn Beck fan and Tea Party movement organizer. Unpleasant, sure; but not a serial killer. Event 2 without the others and he is just a man whose successful life is cut short tragically by cancer. Event 3 requires events 1 and 2, so it can't occur in a vacuum. Events 1 and 2, without the failed suicide attempt, just leave John a bitter, terminally ill man, but he'd stop short of becoming the head of a moralistic murder-cult.

Though John is mastermind of the whole Jigsaw thing, he's not the sole Jigsaw killer (which is really more of a philosophy or a brand, than an individual). To truly "stop" the Jigsaw killings, I think we'd have to show that none of Jigsaw's various acolytes would have developed the concept on their own. So let's run through the Junior Grade Jigsaws and lay out their origins.

Amanda Young: Amanda was a dead-end junkie with a tangential connection to the miscarriage that started John's transformation. She was an early Jigsaw victim who, after escaping the head-mounted reverse bear trap, became a semi-convert to John's ideology. Later, it is revealed that Amanda doesn't really care that much about John's philosophies – she build's deathtraps, not tests, for example – but is motivated more out of some Stockholm Syndrome-esque love of John as a father figure. (Debatably, none of the Junior Grade Jigsaws seem to actually care about John's philosophy – which makes John, oddly enough, a total failure on the messiah front.)

Mark Hoffman: Detective Hoffman comes to Jigsaw's attention when he discovers Hoffman is conducting vigilante killings under the guise of Jigsaw traps. Viewers discover that Hoffman has a history of police brutality prior to his posing as Jigsaw or becoming a part of the actual Jigsaw killings. Even after joining up, Hoffman's motivations never jibe with John's, a conflict that plays out through the last three or four flicks.

Jill Tuck: Ex-wife of John, it's somewhat unclear whether or not Jill is really a Junior Grade Jigsaw. Her early appearances in the film suggest that she is not linked to John's post-Jigsaw existence in any important way; but, as the film series progressed, there were more and more hints that she was aware of John's actions (Hoffman claims she knew from the get-go) and may have even assisted in his murderous activities. Regardless, she only kicks into serious levels of Jigsaw-like activities after the death of her ex-hubby and the delivery of posthumous instructions on how to protect his "legacy" by offing Hoffman, who is more interested than outright murder than John's odd notions of spiritual trial through extreme mortification.

Lawrence Gordon: Prior to his run in with Jigsaw, Larry was a successful, if self-absorbed doctor, who liked nabbing a little ex-martial nookie now and then. Like Amanda, Larry converted to Jigsawism after surviving his own trap experience.

I propose that, given the Junior Jigsaws' histories, none of them would have become Jigsaw without John's interaction. Amanda would have perished in some appropriately sordid junkieish manner. Jill would have never received any instructions about trap building or acolyte killing. Hoffman might still be a killer cop, but he'd never have the template of Jigsaw to hide behind and he doesn't seem creative enough to have cooked up the idea by himself (the contrast between John's demented creativity and Hoffman's vigorous, but simplistic, violence is one of the contrasts exploited in the film). And, without falling victim to a Jigsaw trap, there's no reason to assume Doc Gordon would live out his life as anything other than a tail-chasing, low-grade douchebag of a medical professional. In summary, if something could have prevented John from becoming Jigsaw, nobody else would have picked up the pig mask and all of Jigsaw's victims (not just the dozens of trap victims, but the two teams of SWAT personnel and the handful of police officers and FBI agents that died in violence related to the case) would have all lived.

This is where the issue of Obamacare comes in.

In descriptions of the Saw franchise, John's discussed as have inoperable cancer. This term might be technically correct, but the commonly understood sense of the term as it is used to describe John – that John was doomed the moment he was diagnosed with cancer – is misleading. John's cancer was, apparently, to advanced to consider an operation to remove the cancer. However, even within the film series, we learn that John was not out of medical options. In Saw VI, it's revealed that John approached his insurance provider – the in-jokily named Umbrella Health – to request that the company help cover the cost of an experimental intervention's clinical trial. Umbrella – specifically, executive William Easton and his crew of hand-picked denial specialists – denied John coverage to save a few bucks, closing John's last door to treatment, creating the second condition (and, by extension, the third) necessary for the existence of Jigsaw.

Under Obamacare, John couldn't have been denied coverage for the experimental intervention. Currently, it is illegal for insurance companies to deny you coverage if you want to participate in a clinical trial. This was law several years prior to the current wave of reform. However, in some states, companies must pay for the clinical trials, but may stop "routine" coverage – that is to say, they'll pay for you to participate in the clinical trial, but you have to pay for every other cost (doctor visits, prescriptions, etc.) – during the trial. Under the health reform bills signed into law by President Obama, not only are insurers required to cover clinical, experimental treatments in a trial setting, but they must maintain a national baseline of routine coverage throughout. So, under Obamacare, John Kramer would have had coverage for the experimental treatment he requested.

Would this have, for certain, prevented John from becoming Jigsaw? Nothing's for certain. We can imagine a scenario in which John takes the treatment, nothing happens, and the second necessary condition for the creation of Jigsaw is still in play. That said, I think it is more likely than not that entering John in the clinical trials would have ended the Jigsaw story before it ever began. Best case scenario, John's cured. The second necessary condition for the creation of Jigsaw never develops. No reverse bear traps or giant pig ovens. Even if the treatment didn't take, there's the question of timing. By denying John coverage and creating the second necessary condition while John was still possessed of some measure of physical strength, Umbrella Health leaves an important window open when John is both obsessed enough to become Jigsaw and healthy enough to do it. The more time John spent in a clinical trial, unconvinced of his doomed state, the less time he has as Jigsaw to create plans and recruit able bodies to replace his ailing one. In this second scenario, I think you've neutralized Jigsaw by stalling John's conversion to the point where he'd either lack the time to become Jigsaw or be so frail that a suicide attempt would be something he'd be unlikely to come back from.

Conclusion: We can't say for sure whether Obamacare would have prevented the birth of Jigsaw had it been in place when John needed it. Still, it's good to know that, come 2014, we can worry a little less about future Jigsaws being made.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Television: "Your inner monologue is the conscience of America."

Entertainment Weekly
has a profile of Peter Weller, focusing mainly on his turn in latest season of Dexter. In it, readers discover that Robocop is, among other things, a UCLA PhD candidate in Renaissance Studies. I kid you not. This odd story leads to this interesting bit:

"I'm finishing my Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance history. I just passed my oral exam. One of the guys on my committee is from Cambridge, a professor, Peter Stacey — he’s a genius. He’s also a Dexter freak. I brought him to the Dexter set, and he had this great take on the character. He said, 'You know who Dexter is? If you watched Dexter from outside the US, you'd see immediately. He's the history of America: a child born in blood, condemned to tyrannize — like a child — but possessed with the voice of its Founding Father, pointing him in the right direction. He's the ultimate vigilante. A creation like Dexter sees itself as the world's police force except it has a conscience, which is the voting public.' Stacey told Michael C. Hall, 'Your inner monologue is the conscience of America.'"


Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Stuff: Don't ask me, I just roam here.

Over a the Texas Observer, Owen Egerton files a jokey pop culture observation piece that leans heavily on the horror-as-current-events-allegory shtick. Right at the closer though, he pulls out a curious - and, as far as I know, previously untheorized - allegorical parallel between the divided American consciousness of our morality as individual actors in the context of our awareness of our nation's moral (or lack thereof) standing in the globe with the group dynamics of zombie flicks. Here's Egerton:

Over the last decade it’s become difficult to tell who the monster is. All too often we are the invaders, we are the torturers, we are the ones who terrorize. We no longer need an alien force or lab-manufactured monster. All we need is ourselves. Of course, it’s not any one of us. It’s our country.

Perhaps this explains the resurgence of the zombie film. The horror of zombies is all in their numbers. You can’t blame any single zombie for the chaos of Dawn of the Dead (2004) or Zombieland (2009), just as you can’t blame any single American for the crimes committed in our nation’s name. Any one of us is just another harmless, fun-loving, pleasure-seeking American. Like zombies, we don’t move that fast or think that fast. We spend our time loitering, every now and then pausing for a quick bite. Like zombies, one or two of us can be annoying, especially when vacationing in Europe, but no real threat. But take us as a mass, as a mindless herd of flesh-eaters driven on by base hunger, and we spell worldwide doom.

Zombies as self-absolving symbol of actorless, emergent evil? Interesting.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Books: "And right away, I was scared. We were all scared."

In his new book, The Lampshade, journalist Mark Jacobson investigates the origins of lampshade made out of human skin: a lampshade that was purchased for $35 at a yard sale in New Orleans and may be one of the infamous lampshades that Ilsa Koch (inspiration for Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS) allegedly constructed for her husband out of the skin of Jews slain in Buchenwald. The majority of Jacobson's investigation focuses on the possibility that this grisly artifact was a product of the Holocaust, but he also investigates the possibility that it might be a native product of New Orleans voodoo culture. From gallery owner and "biological and transgressive" artist - meaning he makes art out of biological matter, including parts of humans left over from medical dissections and autopsies - Andy Antippas, Jacobson learns about the Ekoi, "a warlike culture from Nigeria known for painting large, flowery murals and making giant masks, often from human skin."

Armed with slender lead, Jacobson searches database of the Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy Project, which contains digital records of the French slavers that trafficked Africans through the bustling slave auctions of Louisiana from 1719 to 1820. He finds a record of just two Ekoi slaves sold at auction in New Orleans. One, a woman named Felix, was sold for $430 in 1792. The extensive records the French slavers kept contained the following comment on the sale: "Woman is pregnant."

Oddly, the name links with a story Jacobson heard from New Orleans music legend Dr. John. According to the good doctor, a Creole regular at the Saturn bar was a voodoo practitioner of sorts and he was well-known for making masks out of human skin. "Slip them right over your head, " Dr. John tells Jacobson. "Give yourself a whole new face." This strange character's name is, curiously enough, Cheeky Felix.

Could Cheeky Felix be the great-times-ten grandson of the slave woman Felix? Was there some bizarre family tradition of Ekoi flesh-mask making that was passed down from generation to generation for nearly three centuries? Jacobson's curious, if not totally sold, and he attempts to find Cheeky Felix. Dr. John tells him that the Neville brothers - yeah, believe it or not, the Neville "the Meters" brothers - might know where Cheeky Felix is.

This turns out to be a dead end for Jacboson. The Neville brothers are apparently not big flesh-mask types. But Jacobson's interview, in which the brothers Neville discuss New Orleans urban legends and the strange role horror cinema played in segregated New Orleans, leads to a surreal appearance by ANTSS's favorite monster: the Gill-man from the Black Lagoon. Here's Jacobson:

I gave Cyril the short version of the lampshade story and he was interested but again insisted that he had little to add. "Well," he finally allowed, "there was the Gown Man. If our mother wanted to keep us home, she'd tell us about the Gown Man. He was this big white guy in a hospital gown, and he'd snatch you off the street, put you under his arm, and take you over to the dissection room at Tulane University medical school. They'd pull of your skin and you'd get chopped up by medical students, practicing their autopsies."

"They had the Needle Man, too. Supposed to shove a six-inch needle in your eye, suck your brain right out from the socket," Aaron Neville chimed in.

Showtime was approaching and Cyril looked about ready to say good-bye when he said, "There is this one thing. Don't know if it helps you or not, but when we were kids our parents used to send us to this Boy Scout camp y the Lake. We'd play ball and that, but on Wednesdays we went to the movies because that's the day they set aside for black people to go to the movies.

"They always showed these horror movies, like Attack of the Crab People. Creature from the Black Lagoon. The usual shit, trying to scare us, but the movies were so corny, we'd just laugh. Then there was this one time the movie came on and you could tell from the first second this wasn't going to be the same old thing. The film was all messed-up-looking, with these scratches in it. At first you didn't see anything. It looked overexposed. Then you saw these people coming out of what looked like a giant hole. These skinny, skinny people, their eyes sunk deep inside their head. They were wearing what looked like striped pajamas. They showed these dead bodies, stacked up. And right away, I was scared. We were all scared. Because we knew this wasn't something fake. It was real. Remember that Aaron?"

He nodded.

"Then they had these other people, marching by. And I think I saw that thing you're talking about - a lampshade they said was made of human skin. That was really scary."

"You're talking about footage from Buchenwald. The Buchenwald concentration camp," I said.

"Some concentration camp, that was for sure," Cyril answered. "Long as I live I'll never forget those pictures. Give me the chills thinking about it even now. Because there are two things about seeing that movie that have always stayed with me.

"First of all, I couldn't believe white people would do that to other white people. But even more than that was the question about why they picked that particular Wednesday to show that particular movie to us - the kind of message they were trying to send."

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Movies: Downward spiral.

Early in The Descent: Part 2, the much reviled follow-up to The Descent, there's a scene where a tracking dog is unleashed and sent into the elevator house of an abandoned mineshaft. The dog spends a few seconds in the darkened interior of the building without making a sound. The dog's handler and the deputy accompanying him grow concerned and begin to approach the hole in the door the dog used to enter the decaying structure. The dog suddenly bounds out of the building, dashes past his two startled handlers, and races down the dirt road behind them.

What scared the dog?

Because anybody watching this flick presumably saw the first installment, the assumption is that the dog saw one of the troglodyte baddies that live in the seemingly endless cave system that serves as the setting of both flicks. Given what viewers would know at that point in the flick, it's a valid hypothesis.

But we later learn that the elevator house is several stories up from the entrance of any cave entrance. And the nearest cave entrance is actually sealed off. There are no creepy crawlers in the elevator house; unless one wants to propose that a caveman spooked the dog, then quickly crawled down a couple hundred feet of cable, then sealed the cave entrance behind them.

So what scared the dog?

I propose that the dog, finding himself unleashed, realized that this was its only chance to get the hell out of The Descent: Part 2 and took it.

Smart dog.