Buzzkill

Maggots! Corpses! Fast-food scams! A forensic entomologist's work is never done. Plus, a "cure" for hangovers and a dock for sale.

Some people collect coins. Others, art. And Mizzou administrator Robert Hall? Why, maggots.

Hall, who is 59 and toils as the school's associate vice provost for research, is one of only a handful of forensic entomologists nationwide whom law enforcement calls on to confirm how long a corpse has been a corpse. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences made Hall a fellow in March, and Unreal caught up with him via telephone last week.

Just to, you know, bug him.

Unreal: How long have you been a forensic entomologist?

Robert Hall: I grew up in this field. My father was an entomologist. He worked on blowflies. So I grew up collecting blowflies.

And those are...?

Decomposer flies that every child is familiar with. They're blue and green and aggregate around a dead animal on the side of the road. Without blowflies, we'd be up to our armpits in dead squirrels and raccoons and other animals.

You grew up where?

Washington, D.C.

Bet there was some good road kill around there!

There is.

Do you show up at a crime scene?

You can, and I have occasionally. Typically the evidence is collected by the crime-scene technicians, then they will preserve it for you.

Then what?

Well, the female [fly] is going to do everything she can to deposit her eggs in a spot that will give those eggs the best chance to survive. The warmer the temperature gets, the faster the insects develop. Once you know the species of fly involved and the temperature that prevailed during the period of time the fly developed, you can figure out how long it could have taken for the fly to develop from the egg to the stage collected by the crime-scene technician. And that would be the minimum period of time that the individual would have been dead.

The bugs always pretty much look normal?

They do. By the way, the whole medical-criminal aspect is only a fraction of what the forensic entomologist does. Most of what I'm involved with are civil cases. It may be a spider bite — somebody sues their landlord, say. And you wouldn't believe how much fraud there is in fast food, where somebody will come back an hour later and tell the manager, "Look what you sold me," and the hamburger is full of maggots. We get cases all the time dealing with nursing-home neglect — a person who has gangrenous ulcers from advanced diabetes; it's almost impossible to keep the flies off them. Or when a relative discovers Grandpa with a diaper full of maggots, somebody is going to be sued. That happens on a more frequent basis than you would think.

What's your time worth?

A couple hundred dollars an hour.

Do you keep any of the bugs, or do they go to loved ones?

Well, a family has never requested any.

No kidding? Wired Science

Observation: In sixth grade Unreal was introduced to that centerpiece of Western knowledge, the scientific method, and it's stayed with us — although we tend to forget the finer points the morning after a bender.

We're not alone in our fog of incompetence, according to the manufacturers of a hangover remedy called PartySmart, who write in a press release: "In the US, 148 billion dollars is lost each year because of work missed or decreased productivity due to hangovers."

Question:So, when PartySmart invited us to decide which worked better — their pill or the remedy offered by the competition, a company called Chaser — we put a little method to the madness.

Hypothesis:PartySmart lists a "proprietary herbal blend" as its ingredient; Chaser relies upon a "patent-pending formula of activated calcium carbonate and vegetable carbon (activated charcoal)." We predict constipation.

Experiment:Evening one finds us violating PartySmart's protocol by swallowing the blue inch-long horse pill after downing several Bud Lights, Fat Tires and Incredible Hulks. (You're supposed to pop it a half-hour before the first drink.) Home and drunk, we discover that PartySmart's Makali, Bangalore manufacturers' "clinically proven" claim that its pill "protects your liver" has "not been evaluated by the FDA." Is it by coincidence we awaken the following morning in a fit of sneezing, with a slight stomachache?

On evening two we do things in the proper order: a couple of Chasers chased with Irish beers. On this night we slumber, blissfully and hangover-free, right through our alarm and don't make it to the office until noon.

Analysis: We need to get some work done.

Decision: Hangover relief is bullshit. Just like folks in San Diego don't appreciate spring days because it never rains, you can't appreciate booze without hangovers. Ben Franklin should have said: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, and hangovers are proof that God wants us to enjoy fast-food croissandwiches and be unproductive at work."

SOBEBODY BUY MY CRAP

Item: Boat dock
Condition: Fair
Price: Free
Name/Age: Tom/40
Location: Lake of the Ozarks
Phone: 314-703-1557
Issue: May 24

Unreal: Why are you getting rid of your boat dock?

Tom:The lake is requiring that all docks have encapsulated foam floats. I was going to retrofit it but someone talked me into buying a new dock. I wish I hadn't. It would have been cheaper to keep the old dock.

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