Monthly Archives: August 2011

Guest Blogger: Leaving Bits and Pieces of Our Information Online for Anyone to Find

Today I welcome Allison Gamble to The Writers Forensics Blog. She will discuss Cyber Safety. Welcome, Allison.

It’s no secret that the Internet is a treasure trove of information, nor is the fact that personal information is readily available for sale. What may surprise some, however, is the fact that many seemingly innocent tidbits from your personal life not only find their way online, but can be used by criminals to steal your identity, your boss to profile your work ethic, and even criminal courts in the event that you are accused of a crime. Being aware of what you shouldn’t put online and how what you do post can be used against you is the first step in protecting your identity, your career, and your good name.

The Basics

Obviously, most people know that you shouldn’t publish your social security number online. That’s just asking for trouble. However, how many would think that an innocent update to Facebook such as “Party at my place. Today’s my 26th b-day!” could be used to steal your identity? Yet, it could. CBS Money Watch compiled a list of six things you should never post on Facebook (or anywhere). Among them are your birthday, your vacation plans, your address, your workplace confessions, and any items that can be used as password clues (such as your favorite author, mom’s maiden name, and your first pet). Also, revealing risky behaviors such as drinking, drug abuse, or sexual promiscuity could wind up costing you a job or put your life or property at risk.

All of these things might seem obvious, and yet people post them everyday. Far from just revealing information about your identity, these items can also reveal a lot to your boss or any investigator worth his psychology degree. If you flaunt a binge drinking episode and have your boss as a Facebook friend, be prepared for a serious reckoning at work on Monday. If you’ve posted your fantasies of beating up someone, only to become suspect number one if that person is assaulted, don’t be surprised. Social media and blogs are being used more and more by everyone from employers to courts in order to profile individuals, make hiring decisions, and support convictions.

Using Social Media to Track Behavior

It turns out social media actually offer a pretty reliable window on our personalities and lives, making it increasingly important to be careful of what one posts online. A recent study by University of Texas at Austin psychologist Sam Gosling shows that Facebook profiles, far from presenting an idealized virtual image of an individual, provide an accurate picture of an individual’s motivations and personality.

Among the findings of the study, researchers discovered that the personalities of extroverts were easiest to detect. They also found that neuroticism remains difficult to detect except in face-to-face interactions.

What this tells us is that psychologists, and the general public, can use web postings to learn a great deal about an individual. For instance, posting “Party at my place. Today’s my 26th b-day!” doesn’t just provide an identity thief with the date and year of your birth. It provides the psychologist with insight into your personality — in this case, that you are an extrovert.

Additional Concerns

Cyber-bullying has become increasingly common, and in an effort to understand the psychological factors contributing to the behavior, psychologists have studied records of communication and conducted interviews with both cyber-bullies and their victims. They have been interested in a specific type of behavior: online bullying via social media. Cyber-bullying is often an easier form of bullying to perpetrate because it doesn’t involve face-to-face interaction. The old adage that all bullies are cowards seems particularly apropos here, but what research actually indicates to psychologists is that cyber-bullies are highly reactionary. In other words, when something happens to anger them, rather than stopping to contemplating proactive solutions cyber-bullies lash out at easy victims.

Another area in which social media is defining how people are perceived is the employment sector. Employers have taken a tough stance on social media use as well, with the result that what you say online can cost you a job. Look at the case of waitress Ashley Johnson, who posted a complaint about a couple who ate at the restaurant where she worked only to be fired a week later. Apparently, she violated company policies by speaking disparagingly about customers and casting the company in a negative light. It’s possible that Johnson could find it difficult to get another job in the future because of the citation from her previous employer. Whether she might be viewed as impetuous or reactionary by a psychologist, she’ll probably be viewed as a risk by potential employers.

It’s important in today’s digitally mediated environment to carefully think about anything you wish to post before publishing it to the Web. While you might take down that Facebook update that criticizes your boss or that Tweet that advertises your late-night partying, as media reports about everyone from The Game to Representative Anthony Wiener reveal, once posted a mistake can last forever. Psychologists can learn much from what you post online, but so can your next door neighbor or a schoolmate you haven’t seen in fifteen years. Thinking carefully before you post is the only way to guard your good name and manage your online presence to ensure that you always appear at your best.

Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing.


Near Death Experiences: A View of the Other Side or a Neuropsychiatric Event?

You’ve heard the stories countless times. Someone has a brush with death but survives and later reports some very odd happenings. A bright light that pulls them forward, or pushes them away. A floating sensation where they hover near the ceiling and look down on their own rescue or surgical procedure. They might report seeing images from their past or people they’ve known who have passed on, beckoning them to join them in heaven.

Is this what is happening? Are these events a glimpse at what lies beyond the curtain that separates life and death? Or is there a physiological explanation for these phenomena?

In an excellent article that appeared in a recent issue of New Scientist, this phenomenon was discussed by neurologist Dr. Kevin Nelson. He points out that we basically have three states of consciousness: Awake, Non-REM Sleep, and REM Sleep. He emphasizes that these three stages are not distinctly separate but rather overlap one another. And it is in these gaps that near-death experiences live.

Such experiences are most often reported by those who suffer cardiac arrest. A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart ceases to function, either because its electrical activity has stopped or it has become extremely chaotic usually in deadly rapid rhythms that we call ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation. In either case, the heart is no longer and effective pump and blood circulation ceases. The brain requires a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients. If this is interrupted it begins to malfunction and if severely interrupted, as with a stoppage of the heart, brain death begins almost immediately.


So how does this relate to a near-death experience?

One of the areas of the brain that will begin to malfunction early are the eyes and the visual cortex near the back of the brain. As vision begins to fail it does so in an out to in manner. That is, from the periphery to the center. This results in a tunneling of the vision so that it appears as though you’re looking down a gun barrel or a hallway or perhaps a pathway to heaven. What is left of the vision is typically a vague light that is enhanced by all the adrenaline running around in the brain as it fights to survive. This might make the light appear much brighter and this will enhance the victim’s tunnel-like vision and create the bright-light image.

Other areas of the brain are concerned with body position and location in space and when these malfunction the perception of where you are can be altered. This leads to a feeling of floating and in some people their brain constructs the image of their surroundings as if they were looking down on everything, including themselves. Interestingly, PCP (phencyclidine or Angel Dust) can cause a similar reaction, as part of a Depersonalization Syndrome.

This level of consciousness is similar to what psychiatrists and neurologists have called Lucid Dreams. These are dreams that occur in that zone between wakefulness and sleep. They are often extremely real and when someone awakens from them they’re not sure if the events really happened or not. The brain is capable of constructing all types of images and scenarios. Some of these may indeed be the faces and forms of past love ones and when coupled with a loss of spatial orientation and tunnel vision, it can look as though they are ghostly apparitions from heaven.

Near-death experiences are not common but they are often dramatic. In my nearly 40 years of practicing cardiology I have seen this phenomenon many times.


Q and A: What Are The Toxic Effects of a Poisonous Octopus Bite?

Q:    If a healthy adult male, late forties, were to be bitten on the palm of his hand by an Australian blue-ringed octopus (octopus maculosus), how long would it take for him to die? What would be the progression of symptoms? Assuming the forensic pathologist was unaware of the role of the octopus in the death, to what would he or she likely attribute the death?


A:    The Blue-Ringed Octopus comes in two distinct species. The larger, Hapalochlaena lunulata, is approximately 8 inches in across, while the smaller, the Hapalochlaena maculosa, measures only a few inches across and weighs one ounce. The Blue-Ringed Octopus is one of the most deadly creatures in the sea. Small, dark brown to dark yellow in color, it has blue rings, which “glow” a brilliant electric blue when it is angered or disturbed. It hangs out in Australia and the Indo-Pacific area. Typically found in shallow waters and along beaches, it bites when disturbed or picked up by the unsuspecting victim.

The toxin, tetrodotoxin (TTX) is a neurotoxin. It is also found in the Puffer Fish, the California newt (genus Taricha), and in the harlequin frogs (genus Atelopus) of Central America. In the Caribbean TTX is used as Zombie Powder and in some VooDoo rituals. A single Blue-ring may possess enough toxin to kill ten adult humans.

Envenomation typically occurs when the animal bites the victim, but prolonged contact with the saliva of the Blue-ring may allow passage of the toxin through the skin.

The toxic effects are dependent upon how much venom is transferred and the size and health status of the victim. Symptoms onset quickly, usually within minutes, and progress rapidly. Most are of a neurological nature, since the TTX attacks the nerves. The symptoms include numbness, paresthesias (tingling), muscular weakness, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, slurred speech, poor coordination, loss of consciousness, and death. TTX may lead to very low blood pressure, shallow breathing, a very weak pulse, and dilated (enlarged) pupils so that the victim may appear dead before death truly sets in. If the victim survives, he may suffer brain damage from the low blood pressure and reduced breathing. This combination of effects reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood (called hypoxemia) and the amount of blood that reaches the brain. The result is anoxic encephalopathy, which is literally brain damage due to poor oxygenation.

In Zombie making (Yes, this does happen), the TTX is ingested or absorbed through the skin, leads to anoxic encephalopathy as described above, and results in a very compliant individual. It is like a chemical frontal lobotomy.

There is no antitoxin available. Treatment consists of controlling the low blood pressure and supporting breathing until the toxin wears off. This may take hours. CPR should be started immediately to improve blood circulation and supply oxygen to the blood stream. The victim should be immediately transported to the hospital where he would be placed on a ventilator and medications to increase the blood pressure would be administered. Some common intravenous medication used for this are epinephrine, Dopamine, and Dobutamine.

If the victim were an adult and if the death took place at the beach or in the water, the ME might assume the victim died of a heart attack (myocardial infarction or MI) or a cardiac arrhythmia (change in the heart’s rhythm) brought about by physical exertion. If the victim were older and died in bed or in any other resting situation, he might assume the same. Particularly if the victim had a history of heart disease or if he found evidence of significant heart disease during the autopsy. Of course, if the victim is young and otherwise healthy, the ME would be more suspicious that the death was not natural but rather at the “hand of another.”

At autopsy, the ME could rule out an MI, but not an arrhythmia since there are no autopsy findings in deaths from such cardiac electrical instability. He would suspect poisoning only if the death appeared to be something other than a tragic event or if he located the bite mark, which he could with a diligent search. If the killer spread the octopus’ saliva on the victim’s skin or put it in some ingested food, then of course no bite mark would be present. If the ME ordered them, toxicological examinations would reveal the TTX.

The key would be to avoid an autopsy in the first place. If neither a post-mortem exam nor toxicological testing were done, the ME could sign out the death as natural. Political shenanigans, love triangle, bribes, or some other intrigue could entice the coroner to “miss” the critical clues and cover the actual murder.


Posted by on August 17, 2011 in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs, Q&A


Guest Blogger: Frederick Strobl, MD: Transient Global Amnesia

“Where am I?” you ask the nurse on the locked psychiatry ward.

“You are in County General,” he replies.

“Where is that?”

“Downtown. You were found wandering inside a coffee shop, confused, and without identification.”

“I remember nothing since I left home this morning. My memory is just blank.”

“Your husband is on his way. I called him a few minutes ago after you were able to recall your name and phone number for me. He said you pulled your car out of the garage, ran into the tree in front of your house, left it there, and then drove his car to your clinic. He said he had a day off so he slept in and has been trying to reach you ever since he realized something was amiss, but you left your purse, briefcase and cell phone in your car. You went to work, went through mail, charts and dictated letters. Your secretary said you seemed a little different–she thought something was definitely wrong when your dictations didn’t make sense. She said you went out for lunch and never came back. By that time your husband had called your office and the police brought you here, confused from the coffee shop.”

Transient Global Amnesia or TGA is a condition I diagnose in patients 2-4 times per year. There are many causes, but often none is found. Almost all patients have a full recovery, but in a few, the condition will recur. My first case was essentially the one described above–an MD whose TGA was caused by an unusual medication reaction. In almost all cases, patients function somewhat normally but their judgment is impaired and they make no memories.

My second case was a man who also wound up in the locked ward. He had a continuous epileptic attack but was able to talk to me reasonably well.  He was confused, but fluent in speech. I went through my usual protocol of blood tests, an electroencephalogram (EEG), and brain scans. When I looked at the results of the EEG, I noticed that he was having continuous seizure activity, yet was not moving a muscle. I re-examined the patient to see if I had missed some shaking, eye twitching, or anything that might look epileptic, but I saw nothing abnormal.  I gave him a large intravenous dose of a seizure medication. The next morning, he was totally recovered. He recalled nothing of the day before or of my examining him twice.

Other causes of TGA may include a large number of factors including migraines and various chemical abnormalities, as well as stroke-like problems. There are other patients who simply have psychiatric problems or feign the condition after perpetrating certain criminal acts or hoping to get an edge in legal cases.

Overall, Transient Global Amnesia is a fascinating condition that demonstrates the complexities of the brain and our limited understanding of what is the organ of the human body that we understand the least. The brain is the last frontier of medicine.

Frederick (Fritz) Strobl, MD is a neurologist and a Director of the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology, one of the largest private clinics in the world devoted entirely to neurology. His Dr. Jack Stevens series of medical thrillers includes Presidential Migraines and Greek Flu. His next book, Cyber Death, is due to be released in April 2012. Contact Fritz at or visit


Posted by on August 14, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Medical Issues


A Visit to Alpha Medical

Last time I introduced Andrea Joel and her stellar work at CBS where she is Set Decorator for The Young and the Restless. I posed the question: Where does she get all those cool medical props?

That would be from Frank Uchalik and his amazing company Alpha Medical. He has supplied medical props for shows such as ER, Chicago Hope, House, Gray’s Anatomy, Bones, Dexter, CSI, True Blood, and the list goes on. We spent an afternoon in LA with Frank and he kindly showed us around his warehouse of all things medical. And I mean all things. Whatever you need for your set, Franks has it.

The warehouse is massive:

And contains virtually everything medical you can think of:

Need an ICU Set Up? Frank’s got it.

Or maybe an Iron Lung?

An OR set up is a common request:

And comes complete with real-life surgical trays:

Maybe a dialysis set up (foreground) or a Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber (background):

Doing open heart surgery? You’ll need a Heart-Lung Machine:

Or perhaps you need an Autopsy Table:

Stretchers by the scores, both ancient and modern:

Medical Office Furniture? Oh yeah, got that too:

Frank even supplies the smaller stuff:

Blood Tubes:

Medical Charts:

Stethoscopes and Hemostats:

And once everything is packed up, it’s loaded on a truck for its journey to the studio:

These small items await transport to a House set:

I want to thank Frank for taking time from his busy schedule to spend the afternoon with us. It was a treat.


Posted by on August 11, 2011 in Medical Issues, Writing


A Visit to the CBS Studios and the set of The Young and the Restless

Last week we ventured up to LA to visit the CBS Studios where we hung out with my friend Andrea Joel. I met Andrea through her sister Stephanie Joel, the marketing guru for Wiley and for Forensics For Dummies.

Andrea is the Set Decorator for the hit daytime series The Young and the Restless. Her sets are familiar to fans of the show.

Order in the court:

Where the judge hangs out:

Details, details: The court reporter’s station:

The Genoa City Athletic Club Set:

The Club Entrance:

The Bar:

The plates and napkins are produced by the graphics/design department and the attention to detail is apparent.

They even have their own hospital set up: Genoa City Memorial:

Waiting Room:

Nurses’ Station:

Hospital Bed:

Andrea is in charge of making each set accurate and believable. It is amazing the work, artistry, coordination, and attention to detail that is needed to create even the simplest set. A complex one is a true labor.

Where does Andrea get all the props she needs to create a believable hospital set? That would be from Frank Uchalik, the owner of Alpha Medical. We will visit him and his amazing prop warehouse in my next post.


Posted by on August 7, 2011 in Medical Issues, Writing


Cell Phones Are a Gold Mine of Info

You’ve seen it on the news many times. A criminal states that he was nowhere near the crime scene at the time of the crime yet his cell phone says otherwise. Or he says he doesn’t know a particular individual yet his cell phone shows a flurry of calls between the two around the time of the crime. Unfortunately for the criminal, but good news for investigators, cell phone data can show that a tower was accessed, a call was made or received, a text was sent, or a GPS signal was stored. Any or all of these could place the suspect much closer to the crime scene that he’s willing to admit or create a connection between the suspect and an accomplice. Or a victim. The Brian Stidham case is an example.

Police will often work with the service provider to gather this data from their computers. But what if there was a simple and easy way to glean this information from the suspect’s cell phone directly? There is. Cellebrite has a much improved portable device that will extract this data very quickly.

This is definitely something that crime writers can use.


%d bloggers like this: