Monday, February 27, 2012

I'm Burning For You: Spontaneous Human Combustion

So pardon me while I burst into flames
I’ve had enough of the world and its people’s mindless games
So pardon me while I burn and rise above the flames
--Pardon me, Incubus
There are times when I feel like I am on fire, figuratively speaking.  I’m focused, productive--a whirling dervish of epic organization and creativity.
And then there are the other 364 days of the year.
But I guess a figurative fire in your soul is better than a literal one, which brings me to the subject of today’s mythbusters.  Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is the burning of a living human body without obvious source of external ignition.  In theory, some internal milieu creates an ideal environment for the subject to burst into flames.  In the last 300 years, about 200 cases of the phenomenon have been reported.  With over six billion people in the world, this makes human torchdom an uber-rare occurrence except in comic books.

There are a variety of explanations for the phenomenon, ranging from the paranormal to the physiological.  Almost all cases involve people who are sedentary, either due to obesity or age, and most are in poor health or otherwise impaired by drugs or alcohol. 
The earliest suggested case of SHC was in Italy in 1470 when Polonus Vorstius, a knight known to love his wine and women, supposedly quaffed a particularly wicked brandy one evening and then spewed forth flames and died.  I had a similar reaction after drinking a concoction my bestie at the time made for me called The Three Wise Men.  Jim, Jack and Johnnie were never meant to be mixed.  (FYI, if you add Jaeger, it’s called The Four Horseman.  And you should definitely prepare for the apocalypse if you’re still standing afterwards.)

The first scientific evaluation of Spontaneous Human Combustion came from Danish physician Thomas Bartholin in 1663.  He described a woman in Paris who seemingly burned alive while sleeping--however, the straw mattress she slept upon remained intact.  Fifty years later, Nicole Millet, the alcoholic wife of a wealthy French landlord, burned to death while seated in her chair in the family kitchen.  After her death, Monsieur Millet was arrested for her murder. Using the defense of spontaneous human combustion, he was acquitted of all charges.  Jonas Dupont, another Frenchman, was so inspired by this story that he published a collection of SHC cases in his “De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis” in 1763.
A famous U.S. case of human combustion involved a physician named John Irving Bentley.  Bentley, a 92 year-old pipe smoker, was found in his bathroom by a meter reader--or at least the lower half of his right leg (slipper intact) and his walker were found.  The charred hole that surrounded the doctor was approximately two feet square, but the remainder of the house was intact.  Given the condition of the body, the coroner could only comment that death was likely due to asphyxiation and burning of the body, possibly with pipe tobacco as an ignition. 
Forensic photo taken of the remains of Dr. Bentley
Some religious zealots use cases such as these as a sign of the Big Guy laying down some heavenly smiting.  Why an elderly man on his way to the loo deserved smiting remains unexplained, but in April 2011, a man supposedly burst into flames while watching videos in a San Francisco porn shop.  I don't believe the case was divinely orchestrated, but is an impressive feat of friction to say the least.
The most researched case of SHC is that of St. Petersburg, Florida resident Mary Reeser in 1951.  Mary was a portly woman who settled down in her armchair with a cocktail of sleeping pills, alcohol, and a cigarette one night, only to awaken a victim of SHC.  When she was found, her skull had burned to the size of a baseball, but most of the chair, as well as the surrounding room, was unscathed (granted, her apartment was floored and walled with concrete).  The FBI and some of the nation’s best forensic scientists were involved in her case.  
Reeser’s case exemplifies the hypothesis of “the wick effect,” in which a small external flame--in this case, the cigarette--chars the clothing of the victim, eventually splitting the skin below.  In a more rotund person that is impaired with mother’s little helpers, this slow burn may not be sensed.  Fat is released from the wound, which is then absorbed by the clothing.  And now you have a wick for a very human candle.  Forensic scientist John DeHaan experimentally supported this theory using a dead pig wrapped in cloth.  
Not part of DeHaan's experiment.  Saliva is a poor fire extinguisher.
The fire fueled by the pig's body fat released less than 80 kilowatts of heat--no more than a large waste basket fire.  This explained why surrounding items often do not ignite and why there is usually lots of sooty, greasy residue left behind.  Essentially a body becomes a large tallow candle under the right circumstances:  impaired victim, ready amounts of fuel (i.e. copious corpulence), and some kind of ignition, be it cigarette, misguided ember, or electricity.   For those of you partial to CSI, Grissom and his band of merry forensicists replicated DeHaan's experiment on an episode dealing with SHC.   
If the wick effect doesn’t light your fire, there are still other explanations.  Skeptics often believe that most of these incidents are actually murder coverups and an accelerant is just never identified.  Others suggest that special circumstances in the victim combined with high energy particles or static electricity may serve as an ignition source.  Alcoholic victims are thought to be more susceptible due to that tasty accelerant in their bloodstreams.  That theory was supported by Charles Dickens when he used it to kill off his character Krook in the novel Bleak House.  However, if the ignition of an alcohol requires a mix that is around 40% ethanol, but death via alcohol poisoning occurs at around 0.5% blood alcohol level, the likelihood of a human consuming enough alcohol to ignite is nil.  Unless you’re Keith Richards.
Do not light that cigarette, Keith.
Larry Arnold, a self-proclaimed SHC expert, suggested there is a subatomic particle called the pyroton that is responsible.  This particle (whose existence has never been confirmed) interacts with human cells to create a mini-power generator and explosion.  Sort of like nuclear fission on a cellular level.  Other less explosive theories include spontaneous MASER (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) beams, which can occur in nature from decaying atoms and geomagnetism.  
For all of you yoga lovers out there, the pyrokinetic powers of kundalini have also been implicated.  Kundalini is described as a dormant energy within all humans, normally coiled at the base of the spine.  It often is represented by a serpent.  Through meditation and yoga, one can awaken the kundalini and make it rise until it reaches the top of the head, producing a powerful awakening in those who experience it.  It is suggested that those who cannot channel this heat energy properly may find themselves injured.

Cobra pose at your own risk.
My favorite explanation for Spontaneous Human Combustion comes from that bastion of reliable scientific information, South Park. 

Randy Marsh, father extraordinaire, explains SHC as a new lover’s phenomenon.  Victims try to avoid passing gas in front of their new sweetheart, and in doing so create a methane bomb waiting to happen.  This cartoon theory actually has a factual basis.  Hydrogen and methane are flammable gases produced by bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, mainly the large bowel.  There are case reports of intraoperative explosions ignited from the combination of cautery, methane, and the high oxygen environment of the surgical suite.
The idea of bursting into flames due to flatulence should serve as a lesson to fraternity boys across the nation.

Have a wonderful week!  I am looking forward to some days off after being on service for the past month so I can catch up with blogs and writing!  I also need to post responses to some awesome blog awards I received last week, so stay tuned.  Thanks Annalisa, Trisha, and Kathleen for thinking of me!  

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pyrokinesis--all smoke, no fire?

Do I need someone here to scold me?
Or do I need someone who’ll grab and pull me out of four poster, dull torpor, pulling downward?
For it’s such a long time, since my better days.
I say my prayers nightly this will pass away.
--Like the Weather, 10000 Maniacs

Steven King is one of my favorite authors, so when the man coins a term to describe one of his characters, I have to take notice.  Pyrokinesis is the phenomenon of creating fire--not with flint or a Bic--but with the mind.  But is Charlie McGee in Firestarter derived solely from the macabre world in King’s mind?  

Or is pyrokinesis really possible?
Pyrokinesis is lumped in the realm of psychokinesis--i.e. using the mind to affect the surrounding environment.  
Psychokinesis, often used interchangeably with telekinesis, is a term created by American author Henry Holt in his book, On the Cosmic Relations in 1914 His book investigated the bonds of the three-dimensional universe to higher levels of consciousness, focusing on the link between spirituality and physical being.  
Psychokinesis can be used to describe various complex mental forces while telekinesis refers only to movement of objects.  So a telekinetic might be able to move a match across the table, but a psychokinetic can actually light the match and control the flame’s speed and intensity, as well as what surrounding tinder it consumes.

Throughout history, there have been reports of people with pyrokinetic powers.  In the 19th century, A.W. Underwood achieved celebrity status by setting fire to things with his mind.  Later it was discovered he used concealed pieces of phosphorus to create the phenomenon.  In 2011, a 3 year-old girl in the Philippines became a sensation when fires started mysteriously around her.
I had my own pyrokinetic experience thanks to an unfortunate incident while I was canning jalapenos and suddenly nature called.  Hot pants is just one of my many well-earned nicknames.

Fire magic has long been part of pagan religions, representing one of the elemental cornerstones.  For those with a fire fetish, there is a simple exercise quoted in several psychokinetic “how-to” texts that may help you heat up.  “The Dancing Flame” is a focusing exercise in which the practitioner can learn to extinguish and relight fire with just a wave of the hand.  Let me paraphrase the process from PsiWiki et al:

Light a match.  Make a tunnel between your mind and the flame. . .concentrate hard.  Eventually, with enough will power and concentration, the fire will burn out.  With practice, after the flame is extinguished, concentration on the idea of oneness with the flame and energies united will make it flare a red ember again.

It’s just that easy. (insert your favorite skeptical hrumph, yeah right, or WTF here) 
I guess the question that needs to be addressed is can meditative efforts produce a change in the surrounding atmosphere?  There is no doubt in my mind of the powers of meditation.  Scientifically speaking, meditation can slow heart rate, increase blood flow to vital organs, reduce blood pressure, increase serotonin levels (i.e. happy hormones), and increase the activity of natural killer cells, part of the body’s immune system.  Meditation has been shown to have positive effects for those with chronic diseases, in some cases reducing inflammatory processes and pain.  However, how can focused thoughts be projected outside of the body onto another thing--or person for that matter?  Ancient Chinese healing arts, like Qigong, are based on the idea that intrinsic life energies can be directed and focused--but how?  The answer may be found in Quantum Physics.

Quantum Physics in the most simple explanation (i.e. mine) is the relationship between the particle and wavelike behavior of energy to solid matter.  Part of quantum theory states that a particle is everywhere, unless the particle is being directly observed.  Using this theory, if a psychokinetic can focus on one particle, he/she could affect its behavior.  Since all matter in physics is just energy, influencing the particles of an object could redirect energy--and create things like heat, light, and even fire.  Some proponents of psychokinesis claim that our own innate electromagnetic energy can be channeled to affect other energies from other objects.  Thus, intense focus could direct our inner energy into the flow of an external object’s energy, changing its behavior.
Truly mind over matter.
The concept is fascinating and has been the focus of many a SciFi writer’s imagination.  The U.S. Army Research Institute even convened a scientific panel to assess psychokinetic phenomena in the hope to develop military applications for it, such as remote disruption of enemy telecommunications.  Unfortunately, after looking at 130 years of evidence and experiments, the panel concluded in 1987 that psychokinesis remained in the realm of fiction.
Although parapsychologists remain undeterred by the skeptics, there have been no convincing, replicable experiments published on pyrokinesis or psychokinesis.  In fact, as incentive to discover psychokinetic phenomena, the James Randi Education Foundation has offered one million dollars to anyone who can produce a psychokinetic event.  The prize has remained unclaimed since its inception in 1996.

Since the first human discovered the process of creating fire, we have stared into the flames, hypnotized.  Fire may be a phenomenon of oxygen, spark, and fuel, but ultimately it seems like a creature created by magic.  Fire energy describes the heated, intense emotions of humans--anger, lust, love.  Just like the element, the energy of fire is difficult to control, and if not contained, destroys everything in its path.

So beware what you focus on--you may get burned.

Oh, and BTW, Lydia Kang, this is for you:

Friday, February 10, 2012

I'll Tumble 4 Ya Blogfest

She doesn't have anything you want to steal.
Well, nothing you can touch.
--Pretty in Pink, The Psychedelic Furs

Greeting from the 80s.  Please feel free to unearth your fluorescent green leggings from the closet, wear a rat tail in your hair, and say Valley Girl phrases, even if you live in the Midwest.  This blogfest gave me the opportunity to evaluate the poor fashion decisions I made in the 80s--as well as to revisit my adolescent hormonal urges.

In the 80s, I stopped being interested in cartoons and started noticing the three dimensional boys on the boob tube.  Okay, I'll admit, I still occasionally watched Thundarr the Barbarian--have you seen that man's thighs?  
This may explain my barbarian fetish.

As I flicked through pictures of my former crushes, the memories were so poignant I could taste the Bonne Bell Dr. Pepper Lipsmacker.  The smell of Christian Dior's Poison filled the air, reminding me of High School Speech Meets, wearing all black, and using a decapitated Barbie as a Voodoo doll to jinx my best friend's only competition for Dramatic Prose reading.  Voodoo Jarenda, I owe you one.

But back to the boys of when I still had summers off.

Who was the first to stroke my fancy?  Who forever made me partial to tight jeans and fast cars?

Ah, Bo Duke.  You may have been dumber than a box of rocks, but archery skills + orange Charger + floppy blonde hair = adolescent hormone lift off.

My next crush was a soap opera star that was candy for the eyes--and the ears.  The summer of 1982 I was glued to the TV to watch Dr. Noah Drake (aka Rick Springfield) on General Hospital break hearts as easily as he healed them.  

As I got older--and was able to stay up later to watch nighttime dramas--I found a new lust in the form of the bad boy.   Falcon Crest was a drama that involved a winery and the evil scheming of Jane Wyman.  My first taste of the playboy and his charms came from Lorenzo Lamas as Lance Cumson (not joking with that name).  I'm not sure what the plot was, but he spent a lot of time in the family pool.

I still love a man with hair on his chest and a good tan.

Through the 80s I had some short lived flings with others, but one man has stood the test of time, embodying the 80s for me forever.  From his be-bopping bicycle babe turns badass role in Tuff Turf to the quintessential John Hughes high school nemesis to a sadistic but sensitive boss in Secretary, this guy stole my heart with his evil charm and kept it with dry wit and that slow-eyed smolder.

Don Johnson can't hold a candle to James Spader's Miami Vice look.

So that's it, the guys that primed my hormonal pump just in time for college.  And now, I'm going to watch The Lost Boys while wearing my acid washed Pepe jean jacket.  Did anyone see where I put my crimping iron?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Cutting the Devil's Chord

Oh yeah, life goes on.
Long after the thrill of living is gone
--Jack and Diane, John Mellencamp
My sons have recently discovered the joy that is playing the air guitar.  In honor of their burgeoning skills, I thought I’d delve into a musical myth this week. 
I’m a fan of heavy metal.  Some of you may shake your heads, associating that kind of music with a bunch of screaming longhairs and whining guitars.  But there’s a connection from my Black Sabbath to Wagner and classic jazz--and even to West Side Story for those of you into show tunes.
That link is the tritone--aka, the Devil’s chord.

Tritones are musical intervals that span three whole tones.  For those of you who are not musically inclined, think back to Julie Andrews and her chirpy Sound of Music number.  Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do is the major scale that most music is based upon.  Playing from C to C on the piano, it includes all the white keys.  However, there are these half step keys arranged within the major scale, i.e. the black keys.  For example, between F and G, there is F sharp (#).

The classic Devil’s chord is C and F# played either in succession or simultaneously.  It is also known as the augmented fourth or the diminished/flatted fifth.  The perfect fifth (C and G) was the first accepted harmony of the Gregorian chant after the octave.  Thus, the use of this “bastardized” fifth was so disagreeable to medieval musicians that it was often referred to as the Diabolus in Musica (“the Devil in music”).
As with so many things associated with old red and horny, there’s mythology that follows the Devil’s chord.  According to some scholars, the use of the chord was first publicly shunned in the 11th century thanks to the Catholic Church.  The Church suggested that the sound invoked the Devil and caused those who heard it to become sexually aroused.  Composers who did not heed the warning to not use the evil chord were beaten, excommunicated and sometimes killed.  However, no solid evidence of musical murder has ever been found, and many feel the Church disdain for the dissonant chord may have been over exaggerated.
The unpleasant sound was not the only reason this chord may have been associated with the Devil.  Some make the assertion that since a tritone represents three whole tones, and thus six semitones, it could be a nod to the number of the naughty--666.
Eventually, musicians broke from superstition and experimented with the tritone during the Romantic period.  Composers were looking for a sound to represent evil, and the tritone fit the bill.  Wagner was a huge fan of the tritone, using it liberally in his work Gotterdammerung during a pagan ritual scene.  Camille Saint-Saens used it in his Danse Macabre as skeletons came to life on All Hallow’s Eve.  Giuseppe Tartini, one of Europe’s greatest violinists, claimed that the Devil came to him in a dream, teaching him the intricate and nearly impossible “The Devil’s Trill,” a work filled with tritones.
The Devil meets Tartini in his dreams.

Here's a scene from the Gotterdammerung using tritones:

In more modern times, heavy metal adopted the sound, although perhaps not consciously.  Tommy Iommi, metal guitar god of the group Black Sabbath, found the chord just “sounded right”.  

Heavy blues and jazz artists also used the chord--here it is in the opening riffs of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze, perhaps as a wicked musical warning about the use of hallucinogens. 

Other bands used the chord to enhance their devilish mystique.  Slayer’s album Diabolus in Musica is an example.  British comedian Bill Bailey gives his insight into metal's embrace of this interval in the following clip:

Although the chord’s origins are debated, there’s no denying that it evokes a certain feeling in the listener. I have to admit that some music I’ve listened to just sounds evil, especially when I was going through that Norwegian Death Metal phase I had a few years back. 

Dissonance can become a motif--it announces a type of character, or gives a certain mood.  Tritones are often seen in movie music, announcing that Mr. Bad has walked on to the screen or that the promiscuous prom queen is about to meet the business end of a chainsaw.
But as for the idea that a musical chord can bring forth the devil, it’s plausible only if you are one of those people who never could say “Bloody Mary” three times in front of a mirror as a kid.  For me, the chord is far more fantastic than phantasmal. 

It represents a perfect imperfection.  

If we were never meant to hear things that are not quite right--the things that evoke emotions that are twisted or confusing--those half step keys would never have been included in the scales.  
It’s the imperfections that create depth and substance.
I think that’s true in writing characters, too.

Have a fantastic day!  I leave you with a devilish ditty from West Side Story.