The Devil’s Latte?

It wasn’t until the 15th century, in southeastern Arabian peninsular lands that would become Yemen, that it is believed the locals first cultivated, brewed, and consumed the libation we know as coffee. At first this drink was used as part of worship, but before long people were enjoying it in the secular realm as well, and its fan base spread far and wide within a century.

However, it almost didn’t make it into Europe.

You see, the logic in Christendom at the time was that Muslims, a term basically synonymous with devil worshippers, weren’t allowed to drink wine, as it was the essence of the eucharist. As such, it was held that The Evil One gave to his infidel followers coffee as a substitute.

'nuf said

‘nuf said

Naturally, this question eventually made its way to the Holy See and the then-sitting Pontiff, Clement VIII, who saw things a bit differently. Clement opined that coffee actually might help sober a population whose fluid intake was a bit too reliant on alcohol in his view. But that stance was not entirely altruistic. Apparently Clement sampled coffee himself and liked it. A lot. He told his Maestro di Camera that “this drink of Satan is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

Can a Vatican Starbucks be far behind?

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Lost In Space

Manned space flight is inherently dangerous, and was all the moreso in the days before science had experience with liftoff, orbit, and reentry. Not counting many animals sacrificed early in the gathering of requisite safety data – the Russian dogs Laika (d. 1957 on Sputnik-2) and Pchyolka and Mushka (d. 1960 on Sputnik-6) come to mind – there still have been a number of human fatalities associated with the Soviet and American space race.

First there were early training jet accidents on both sides. 1967 was a particularly lethal year: Vladimir Komarov was the first known space-related fatality onboard Soyuz-1, and his demise was followed by the disintegration of an American X-15 while attempting to land several months later, and then the tragedy of Apollo-1. There was the loss of Georgiv Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Vokkov onboard Soyuz-11 in 1971. The Challenger was destroyed in 1986, and the Columbia followed in 2003.

If accepting NASA’s definition of ‘space’ as being that realm more than 50 miles above the earth’s surface, then only the Soyuz-11 crew actually perished in space, and to our knowledge (and despite Hollywood’s movies), the bodies of all of those who have died in space programs have been recovered to earth.

Look Out!

Look Out!

So the question remains… what would happen if someone died in space and wasn’t recovered?

If not already and unpublicized, it is bound to happen sometime. And NASA has actually looked into this, er, problem.

Without a spacesuit, a human would mercifully pass quickly in the numbingly cold oxygen-depleted void of outer space. The same, however, cannot be said for the body. The exceedingly low temperatures and the anaerobic vacuum would together sterilize a corpse, cryodessicating (a.k.a. freeze-drying) both skeletal and soft tissue elements. But radiation – the constant bombardment of gamma-, x-, and ultraviolet-rays – would eventually cause the molecules in frozen tissues to lose their atomic bonds and vaporize.

Unless, of course, the brittle dehydrated mass first collided with something and disintegrated like an antique porcelain tchotchke on a cement floor.

With a spacesuit, one’s passing might regrettably be prolonged because of the favorable internal environment, but once expired, the decomposition process would be speeded… at least while the climate control continued. Thus, a partial decomposition likely would occur inside a space-suit or -ship until the temperatures put the process on hold. Once, or if, a heat source was neared, however, the decomposition process might resume, unless the cold, lack of oxygen, and radiation had by then rendered any earthly bacteria unviable, in which case the eventual end result would be similar to that sans space-suit.

All of this is speculative of course, because research that has been done on the biological processes of decomposition and putrefaction has occurred in our living earthly biosphere filled with bacteria and other both natural and man-made environmental assailants.

And since we don’t know about the impact from atmospheres other than our own, it can’t be said with any certainty what would be the sequelae of death on another planet – or by alien ray gun.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Snake Oil

‘Snake Oil’ is a generic term that comes to us from the days of traveling patent medicine hucksters. It is defined as a substance (or more recently, a political salve) that has no real value-as-advertised.

Snake Oil

Snake Oil

Chinese laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad in the American West in the 1860s often applied to their aching joints a topical lotion made from water snakes, for pain relief.

Two schools of thought evolved from this observation: that of the marketers (who felt that ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ goods would sell briskly) and that of the individuals schooled in ‘real’ (read: Western) medicine (who felt that the potion had no therapeutic value whatsoever).

The former gave rise to the hucksters, and for a while they were quite successful.

The latter gave rise to the definition of snake oil as worthless.

‘Worthless’ eventually won out. But perhaps that was a bit premature.

More recent studies of the water snake concoction reveal that the Chinese Water Snake (Enhydris chinensis) is unusually high in Omega-3. It is, in fact, a very effective anti-inflammatory, esp when applied topically, since essential fatty acids are known to be quickly absorbed trans-dermally, just as the traditional Chinese healers suggested.

Unfortunately, the hucksters didn’t go to China to find water snakes for their products. In this country, they used rattlesnakes, which do not contain anywhere near as much Omega-3, and thus are far less effective, or wholly ineffective, for analgesia.

Sometimes, their ointments contained no snake at all. Clark Stanley, a man later known as the ‘Rattlesnake King’ in the late 19th century, marketed a snake oil that the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry investigated in 1916; it was found to be totally devoid of snake, containing instead mostly mineral oil and only 1% fats … derived from beef.

Thus, the Western versions of snake oil were likely bunkum. And Stanley was fined $20 for his false advertising.

So, the next time someone tries to sell you snake oil, don’t summarily answer, ‘no thanks.’ Ask ‘what kind?’

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Fido Cotoletta alla Milanese

[Disclaimer: this post references an act of animal abuse. I’ve tried not to be lurid, but in order to illustrate the scenario and the legal question it raises, it is unavoidable to discuss the actual event]

Recently, one Thomas Huggins in Orlando, Florida, decided that his pit-bull mix, Bandit, was getting too aggressive to safely handle or keep. So he did the only thing logical (to him). He killed her. By strangulation. With a plastic bag and his bare hands.

Pretty bad, huh? Unfortunately, we’re just getting started.

After killing Bandit, Huggins proceeded to skin the carcass, eviscerate the torso, decapitate her, and then dismember and dice her with a steak knife.

When the police arrived (it’s not immediately apparent how they were tipped), they found Bandit’s ribs cooking in a pot on the stove, along with veggies and seasoning. Other body parts were in the freezer in plastic baggies. The head, skin, and entrails were in the trashcan. Huggins was arrested on the spot.

Initially at trial (and apparently prior to Huggins’ confession), veterinarian Bill Zingalie testified that he was unable to determine the exact cause of death, as “the evidence came in four different bags.” And had been cooked.

But later, once the details were known, the dismembering of the pet was deemed inadmissible by Judge Samantha Ward, as it lacked relevance.

Lacked relevance?!

As a prison psychiatric director, I see a lot of people who have been convicted of both animal cruelty as well as homicide. It is accepted within forensic circles that a killing that occurs with bare hands against a struggling victim – as opposed to those performed more remotely – often involves rage and, not uncommonly, a degree of psychopathology not found in garden-variety shootings.

It’s also known that those who abuse humans usually commence their careers with animals.

I would offer that the culinary experiment is very relevant. But Judge Ward differed, holding that cooking of the dog couldn’t be considered cruel because, by then, the dog was already dead.

Nevertheless, last month after only one hour of deliberation, Huggins was convicted of (3d-degree) felony animal cruelty, carrying a maximum of five years in prison. The results of his psychiatric evaluation have not been made public as of this writing. He will be sentenced this coming Thursday, December 19th.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Widow White’s Tavern

On this day in 1776, American General Charles Lee was caught with his pants down. Literally.

It seems that Lee – little-remembered today and certainly not a hero of modern textbooks – was miffed that he had been denied appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in favor of the less-experienced George Washington. It’s true that Lee was a capable officer who had graduated from a British military academy and had ably served with the King’s forces in the Seven Years’ War. But when he failed to land a lucrative royal appointment afterward, he retired from the army and remained in the colonies, later taking up the rebel cause perhaps out of spite.

The fact that Lee was known to imbibe and possess a volcanic temper even when sober – Mohawks whom he had fought in the war had dubbed him ‘Boiling Water’ – and demonstrated other, er, weaknesses of character probably played a role in his stunted career.

Ironically, Boiling Water had married a Mohawk woman when he wasn’t fighting her relatives, but that inconvenient fact didn’t quell his interest in women of loose virtue. More on that in a moment.

At some point in his service of the King, Lee had crossed paths with Banastre Tarleton, who would later become famous during the Revolution for the alleged atrocities of his mounted troops. When Tarleton learned of his nemesis’ treachery in joining the rebels, he swore – in a London club over rounds of port and madeira – to personally hunt him down and relieve him of his head.

Lee probably came to wish Tarleton had kept his word.

Oh, he kept the ‘hunt him down’ part. Learning of Lee’s penchant for strumpets, Tarleton’s 16th Light Dragoons waited until the wee hours of 14 December 1776 to find Lee, not with his bivouacked troops three miles away, but instead unguarded and in the company of said loose women at Widow White’s Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. There they interrupted him, in flagrante delicto, and hauled him all the way back to New York City… still in his nightdress. And shackles.

After that humiliation, though, Lee was shown courtesy and given plush accommodations and a manservant while he discussed with his captors potential weak spots in the American defenses.

Apparently Washington was unaware that Lee had been helping the British, because when Lee was finally released in a prisoner exchange in May 1778, he reported to the Continental Army at Valley Forge and was given back his command. True to form, though, it was not long before his temper erupted in insubordination, and Lee was suspended by Washington and convicted at court-martial six months later. Drummed out of the service, he retired to Philadelphia, and died there in 1782.

Despite his decidedly mixed record, Fort Lee, New Jersey, is named for him.

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Just Anger

It is not uncommon for some to see a psychiatrist to attempt to gain a mental diagnosis and a subsequent disability check. By no means, though, is psychiatry the only medical discipline that encounters those who fabricate; it’s found everywhere, and unfortunately such ‘gaming’ of the system happens all too frequently. Not only is it indisputably dishonest, but when successful, it robs from our limited resources those monies that would otherwise be spent caring for individuals with legitimately disabling conditions.

The reader may take small solace, then, in the knowledge that such trickery is by no means new, nor restricted solely to our 21st century.

Paré Frontispiece

Paré Frontispiece

The 1634 edition of the works of French surgeon Ambrose Paré include several stories of frauds who pretended to be suffering from horrible ailments for the purpose of begging in the street from sympathetic pedestrians. His introduction included the warning that such beggars were not only not desperate, but were capable of other criminal actions, and that the honest charitable reader should take heed.

In his words, “some there be who are not content to have mangled and ulcerated their limbs with caustic herbs… or to have made their bodies more swollen, or else lean, with medicated drinks, or to have deformed themselves in some other way, but from good and honest citizens who have charitably relieved them, they have then stolen children! [All the while] pitifully complaining that they came by this [physical] mischance by thunder or lightning or some other strange accident.”

Paré tells the first clinical case in his text: “Not very long ago, a woman offered herself [for charity because] her womb was fallen down by a dangerous and difficult birth, wherefore she was unable to work for her living. Then [those running the charity] commanded that she be tried and examined, according to the custom, by the chirurgians (surgeons) therefore appointed. Who, seeing how the whole business was carried, made report that she was a counterfeit, for she had thrust an ox’s bladder, besmeared with beastly blood, into the neck of her womb…. For this she was put into prison, and being first whipped, was after banished.”

And then he relates a second case: “There came presently to us a well flesh’d woman, begging alms, and taking up her coat and her smock, she showed a great gut hanging down some half a foot, which seemed as if it had hanged out of her fundamnet [anus], [from which] there dropped filth like pus, which had stained her legs and smock, most beastly and filthy to look upon. [My colleague] asked her how long she had been troubled with this disease; she answered that it was four years since she first had it. Hence he easily gathered that she played the counterfeit, for it was not likely that such abundance of purulent matter came forth of the body of so well flesh’d and colored a woman; for she would rather have been very lean and in a consumption. Wherefore provoked with just anger, by reason of the wickedness of the deceit, he ran upon her and threw her down upon the ground, and trod her under his feet, and hit her with blows upon the belly, so that he made the gut which hung [down], to come away, and by threatening her with more grievous punishment, made her confess that it was not her gut, but that of an ox, which being filled with blood and milk, and tied at both ends, she put into her fundament, and let the filth flow forth at very little holes.”

What is perhaps of most interest is not the fakery nor the repeated use of body parts from oxen. Rather, the doctor’s assault is reported without shame or regret; it is seen as stemming from just and righteous anger, fully expected of a medical professional when uncovering a fraud who was preying on the good.

Imagine doing that today!

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Everyone likes a yarn with a happy (or at least satisfying) ending. With the exception of artsy foreign films and ruminative Russian novels, the Western entertainment mainstream usually tries to put a positive spin on bad situations, giving a sense that, if not ideally, justice was somehow imperfectly done.

I see this a lot in my psychiatric practice – a desire that events turn out just the way they should, or that things aren’t really that bad. Call it the Ostrich Syndrome. A lot of problems stem from the fact that people view the world, and their relationships, the way they want them to be, and not by the light of reality.

Take-home message: sometimes there are bad endings. Unfair endings. Endings that are sad and leave one feeling empty and lost. And the villain gets away.

Just grow up and deal with it.

Unless, of course, you complain loudly enough, in which case you can count on the ending you desire.

Before it was a Hollywood hit and Oscar-nominated musical in 1986, Little Shop of Horrors was a campy 1960 low-budget cult flick which is rumored to have cost only $30,000 to make and was completed in a matter of days.

[Quick trivia: which now-famous A-list actor had one of his first screen roles in the 1960 film? Answer: Jack Nicholson]

For those of you who live in caves, the plot revolves around an orphaned nerd, Seymour Krelborn, who toils in a rundown florist shop in a seedy neighborhood of Gotham. His dream girl, Audrey, is the cashier, and the owner, Mr Mushnick, is a humorless penny-pinching grouch. Business is so bad that Mushnick decides to close the store, until Audrey suggests that Seymour show the boss a “strange and interesting plant” that mysteriously appeared following a solar eclipse. The odd spud in the window starts to attract business. Lots of business. Until one day it looks ill, and Mushnick orders Seymour to stay with the plant – now the business’ lifeblood – to nurse it back to health.

Pun intended re: ‘lifeblood.’ You see, the plant, named Audrey II by Seymour in honor of his squeeze, feeds and thrives on human blood. A few drops at first, but with a growing appetite.

don't feed the plant

don’t feed the plant

You can see where this is going.

True to the off-off-Broadway theatrical production spawned by the 1960 movie, in the first 1986 version the plant eventually grows to monstrous proportions, eating both Audrey and Seymour, and taking over the world. As the 1986 remake was nearing completion, after millions of dollars of expense, the excited studio set up a test screening in San Jose, California.

Frank Oz, the giant plant’s puppet-master, later recounted: “For every musical number there was applause. [The audience] loved it. It was just fantastic. Until Seymour and Audrey [were eaten], and then the theater became a refrigerator, an ice box. It was awful and the [feedback] cards were just awful. You have to get at least a 55% ‘recommend’ rating for the studio to release a film, and that night we got 13%. It was a complete disaster. I learned a lesson. In a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow. In a movie, they don’t come out for a bow because they’re dead. The [movie] audience lost the people they loved… and they hated us for it.”

A second test screening in Los Angeles the following week resulted in 12% positive. And then nasty letters and phone calls began to arrive at the studio. People started to complain. Loudly. The entire project was in jeopardy.

Back to the drawing board.

The 23-minute finale had to be reshot before any hope of national distribution. In it, Seymore and Audrey come out victorious and live happily ever after. And that’s how it was released. Totally saccharine.

But it worked. Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 90% positive based on critics’ reviews. The print media was effusive with praise. Even the late great crusty Roger Ebert gave it two thumbs up.

But the studio production team wanted that original dark ending back.

In 2012, copies of the first macabre ending were uncovered in storage, apparently saved from the sweepings of the cutting room floor. Within months, Little Shop of Horrors was released in DVD format as a “Director’s Cut,” the way that was at first intended: plant victory.

And (home) audiences hate it all over again.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]