Archive for November 13th, 2006
We’ve heard a lot about the kind of oversight priorities that committee Chairmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Conyers (D-MI) will have on the House side. We’ve heard on the Senate side, for example, about the plans that Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has for oversight from the Intelligence Committee.
But has anyone heard anything from Joe Lieberman (“ID”-CT) about his oversight plans as chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee?
With a huge portfolio, Lieberman’s committee is positioned to investigate a vast swath of the federal government. But Lieberman’s plans remain remarkably vague. For instance, a UPI story today describes at length the oversight plans being made by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), who will become chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, but it devotes just one paragraph to Lieberman, confirming that he will serve as committee chairman.
So what does Joe have in store for the Bush Administration that so aggressively backed his re-election?
Arson investigators, often untrained h.s. graduates with no college degree or scientific training, rely on a handful of assumptions to judge the causes of fires. They can send people away for life—or to be executed—when they often don’t know what they’re talking about and are dead wrong. For example:
A tale of two fires
Fire science has come to the fore in the US in two cases championed by the legal group The Innocence Project. The cases involve two Texans, Cameron Willingham and Ernest Willis. Each was accused of arson murder — Willis for the deaths of two female acquaintances who died in a house fire in 1986, and Willingham for allegedly killing his three children, all under 3 years of age, in a fire at his home in 1991. Both men claimed to have woken to find the houses ablaze. Both were convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of expert testimony that the fires were started intentionally.
At Willingham’s trial, investigators told jurors of 20 arson indicators in the debris, and claimed Willingham had used accelerants to start three separate fires in the home. In 2004, however, a month before Willingham’s scheduled execution, the defence asked independent fire consultant Gerald Hurst to review the case. Hurst’s report disputed every bit of trial testimony and dismissed as invalid all the arson indicators cited by the investigators. The list included crazed glass and burn patterns on the floor. All have been found in accidental fires, and experiments have reproduced them. In short, Hurst found no evidence of anything but an accident. His appeals to the court fell on deaf ears, however, and Willingham was put to death.
By contrast, Willis was lucky. In 1996, new lawyers secured a hearing to determine whether he deserved a second trial. A judge ruled in 2004 that Willis either be released or retried. A new district attorney asked Hurst to review the case. Again, he found no evidence of arson. Only months after Willingham’s execution, Willis was exonerated and set free after 17 years on death row.
In January 2005, a panel of fire-science experts looked into these cases. Its report echoes Hurst’s conclusions: arson testimony used against each man was based on obsolete assumptions. It calls for the criminal justice system to require those who testify in arson cases to have backgrounds in fire science. In May this year the report was sent to the Texas Forensic Science Commission. There has been no response yet, but if Texas is shown to have wrongfully executed Willingham, the state’s lawyers will be the ones putting out fires.
Science has recently begun to systematically investigate what happens in fires: Read the rest of this entry »
Rats born to mothers who drank caffeinated beverages throughout their pregnancies had abnormal brain-cell function, researchers report.
Experts already recommend that pregnant women limit their caffeine to 300 milligrams per day—about the amount in three cups of coffee. Although this moderate consumption is considered safe, Deborah Soellner and Joseph Núñez of Michigan State University in East Lansing wondered whether it could still have significant effects on youngsters’ brains.
The researchers provided some pregnant rats with free access to caffeinated water. On average, the animals consumed 3 to 4 mg of caffeine daily, the equivalent of the recommended limit for pregnant women. Other pregnant rats received only plain water.
When the pups were born, the researchers took samples of cells from each baby’s hypothalamus. Soellner and Núñez tested the cells’ responses to various chemicals that brain cells use to communicate, such as the neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid and glutamate.
The scientists found that cells from the caffeine-exposed and caffeinefree pups behaved differently. The response in the caffeine-exposed pups was heightened for certain neurotransmitters but dampened for others. Since some of these signaling chemicals affect brain development, the researchers suggest that caffeine during pregnancy may affect children’s later brain function.
“Maybe human studies on caffeine consumption during pregnancy should be reevaluated,” Núñez says.
Pelosi’s backing Murtha, but he exudes the stench of corruption pretty heavily:
So House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi has thrown her weight behind Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) to be the next House Majority Leader.
Few outside of Murtha’s district — or the corridors of Washington, D.C. — knew much of Murtha until his outspoken opposition to the Iraq War earlier this year made him a cause celebre among liberals. What else has he been up to this year? In an excellent but little-noticed piece last month, the New York Times brought us up to speed:
In the last year, Democratic and Republican floor watchers say, Mr. Murtha has helped Republicans round up enough Democratic votes to narrowly block a host of Democratic proposals: to investigate federal contracting fraud in Iraq, to reform lobbying laws, to increase financing for flood control, to add $150 million for veterans’ health care and job training, and to exempt middle-class families from the alternative minimum tax.
As Murtha put it, “deal making is what Congress is all about.” Yessir — blocking fraud investigations, stonewalling lobbying reform. That’s what Congress is all about, isn’t it?
UPDATE: Another view from Steve Gilliard. The problem will be if Murtha becomes Majority Leader and the scandal hanging over his head blows up in early October 2008.
Via AmericaBlog, from Editor & Publisher:
Her name doesn’t show on any official list of American military deaths in the Iraq war, by hostile or non-hostile fire, who died in that country or in hospitals in Europe or back home in the USA. But Iraq killed her just as certainly.
She is Jeanne “Linda” Michel, a Navy medic. She came home last month to her husband and three kids (ages 11, 5, and 4), delighted to be back in her suburban home of Clifton Park in upstate New York. Michel, 33, would be discharged from the Navy in a few weeks, finishing her five years of duty.
Two weeks after she got home, she shot and killed herself.
“She had come through a lot and she had always risen to challenges,” her husband, Frantz Michel, who has also served in Iraq, lamented last week. Now he asks why the Navy didn’t do more to help her.
Michel’s story has now been probed by reporter Kate Gurnett in today’s Albany Times-Union. It’s headlined, “A casualty far from the battlefield.”
And yet, in many ways, not far at all. Read the rest of this entry »
Kevin Kelly on Cool Tools has a list of places where you can make micro-loans on-line. As you probably know, I like Kiva.org, which (oddly) doesn’t appear in his list, though Kiva has cooperative relationships with some of the ones listed.
At any rate, think about making some micro-loans. It’s very satisfying.