Posted: 09 Nov 2009 05:11 PM PST
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We admit it. Spiders have become an obsession at Wired Science. It started in September when we reported on a spider-milking machine that was built to extract silk from a million golden orb-weavers, two dozen at a time, to make a 44-square foot cloth. After that, we were hooked, and we've found ourselves writing about an inordinate number of arachnids, and googling plenty more. But, really, who could blame us?
We wanted to share the fruits of this spider frenzy with you, so we've created a Hall of Fame for our eight-legged friends. Who's the biggest, meanest or most stuck-up spider around? Read on to find out, but be forewarned: Some of these photos are guaranteed to give you the heebie-jeebies.
Although this giant is called the Bird-eater, named by Victorian explorers who witnessed the spider devouring a hummingbird, the tarantula doesn't have particular preference for birds. Like other spiders, the Goliath's favorite foods are small insects such as crickets and beetles. However, he's also an opportunistic eater: When faced with a delectable reptile, bird or small mammal, what's a hungry spider to do? Apparently, the Goliath will gobble up just about anything that's smaller than itself.
Posted: 09 Nov 2009 05:00 PM PST
Iman Morales didn't answer the door. As his mother stood waiting outside his one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, she grew increasingly concerned. Lately Morales had been acting erratically and having trouble with his psychiatric medication. Desperation mounting, she called 911.
When the Emergency Service Unit from the New York City Police Department arrived, Morales scrambled out of his apartment onto the fire escape. The stout 35-year old was naked and shouted incoherently. An officer appeared on the fire escape, and Morales retreated to a slim metal ledge over a storefront, where he jabbed at him with a fluorescent light tube.
At that point, Lt. Michael Pigott, a 21-year NYPD veteran, ordered an officer on the ground to fire his stun gun. Morales collapsed and fell 10 feet to the sidewalk, landing on his head. He was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead on Sept. 24, 2008.
Morales' death, a video of which was posted on the internet, raised a national media storm and fueled criticisms of law enforcement's use of stun guns. During the past decade, police departments all over the United States have ramped up use of Tasers, the popular name for stun guns produced by Taser International. By June 2009, the company said it had sold Tasers to more than 14,200 law enforcement agencies in over 40 countries, and that 29 of the 33 largest U.S. cities now deploy the weapon.
According to Taser International, its technology is relatively safe — the official terminology is "less lethal"— and decreases injury and death among both police officers and arrestees. But not all experts agree. Doctors in particular are concerned about the effects on the heart and brain. And a December report by Amnesty International found that between 2001 and 2008, 334 people died in the U.S. after being Tasered by police. Just last month, a 19-year-old man died after being Tasered by police in San Bernardino, California.
"There is so much controversy because [the Taser] has conquered the market so rapidly," said Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International. "It's a revolution in law enforcement. And with revolution comes pain."
Taser International has become notorious for aggressively dismissing health concerns, but on Oct. 12, the company released a training bulletin recommending that officers avoid chest and head shots when possible. Three days later, however, Rick Guibault, vice president of training, said the change had little to do with safety and that the company would continue supporting its customers in lawsuits no matter where the Taser hits.
With no codified rules in place for Taser deployment, police have used it liberally — on children and the elderly, drug addicts and the mentally ill. Around 850,000 criminal suspects have been Tasered in the field, according to the company.
In 2007, the United Nations likened Taser use to torture. That same year the catch phrase "Don't tase me, bro," shouted by a student being Tasered by campus police, won a first place among Time magazine's Top 10 T-shirt Worthy Slogans.
"Using the Taser weapon feels benign," said Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty International USA's Domestic Human Rights Program. "Taser International is very fond of saying that getting shocked with a Taser is similar to receiving a static electricity shock from rubbing your feet on the carpet and then touching the doorknob. It's that mentality that allows police officers to use the Taser weapon where they would never dream of using a billy club."
"Unfortunately, there are hundreds of people who never got up again," she said.
The Body Electric, and Then Some
The Tasers used by law enforcement look like play guns. Instead of a normal muzzle, the plastic weapon has two small cartridge doors. Pull the trigger and the doors pop open and two barbed metal darts, propelled by compressed nitrogen, fly out and lodge in the skin or clothes of the target. The darts are attached to the gun by thin electrical wires that draw electricity from a couple of AA batteries. Once in the body, they set up an electric circuit. The Taser's high voltage — 50,000 volts, compared to the 110 volts of a light socket — makes charged particles flow readily through the skin, from dart to dart. The current is about 270 times smaller than that flowing in a Christmas-tree bulb, but it's more than enough to hijack the delicate motor nerves that control our muscles.
At each pull of the trigger, the gun fires a rapid series of electric pulses that cycle for five seconds. As electricity courses down the motor nerves, it overrides the weaker signals from the brain and causes violent contractions in the muscle groups around the darts. The contractions are so powerful that, in rare instances, they can cause sprains or even fractures.
Along with the muscle spasms comes excruciating pain. A National Public Radio reporter, who volunteered to be shocked with a Taser in 2005, said it felt "like someone reached into my body to rip my muscles apart with a fork." Wired.com's Noah Shachtman called his 1-second Taser shock "brutal" when he volunteered in July (see video).
The overwhelming pain has long since placed electricity high in the torture arsenal. Later, it dawned on law enforcement that electricity would also make for a handy compliance tool. In 1969, riot-control expert Colonel Rex Applegate wrote in "Riot Control: materiel and techniques" that police could use the shock baton, essentially an electric cattle prod, to "handle and move, with a minimum of force, drunks of both sexes, teenagers, alcoholics, derelicts, etc." The modern Taser goes one step further. Incapacitating the muscles, it freezes the target to the spot, allowing police to disarm and handcuff the suspect.
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