October 2009 Archives

Thu Oct 22 02:11:32 CDT 2009

Baghdad Battery

Sadly, the first thing i think of is a battery used to torture people in Abu Ghraib, but it's not that.

The Baghdad Battery (AKA "Parthian Battery") is an artifact discovered in Mesopotamia that could have been made as early as 250 BCE - 224 AD. It seems to have been a electrochemical cell, made from a small terracotta jar holding a copper sheet and iron rod.

That Wikipedia article says, "If [the dating is] correct, the artifacts would predate Alessandro Volta's 1800 invention of the electrochemical cell by more than a millennium."

It's speculated that it was used to electroplate gold onto silver, or maybe to inspire religious awe by mildly electrifying metal artifacts that people could touch -- in otherwords: "Magic."

(Of course i went to Wikipedia to read about something else like 30 minutes before discovering this.)

Posted by johan | Permanent link | File under: randomweirdness

Fri Oct 9 00:29:18 CDT 2009

Governor Perry Guilty of Murder?

This week's Austin Chronicle includes a story about how Governor Perry just removed three members of a commission who were appointed to look at forensic misconduct, that may have resulted caused the State of Texas to execute an innocent man.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for murdering his three children by setting fire to their (and his) home. Willingham had appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and then to Governor Perry after at least one fire investigator, Dr. Gerald Hurt, had found that there was no evidence of arson, disagreeing with almost all of the conclusions in the original arson report. And of course, these findings were presented to Governor Perry.

After the execution, in 2004, the Chicago Tribune and later in 2009 the New Yorker published pieces examining whether Willingham was innocent of the crime. They cited reports and interviews with many arson and fire investigators who said disputed the conclusion that the fire was caused by arson.

In 2005, Perry appointed the Forensic Science Commission (FSC) to investigate claims of forensic misconduct in Willingham's as well as other cases. In August 2009, another national arson expert, Craig Beyler presented a report, that i think was commissioned by the FSC. On Sept. 29th, less than 72 hours before the FSC was to review the report, Perry removed three of the FSC members whose terms had just expired. He has only appointed two replacements. For the spot on the FSC supposed to represent defense counsel, Perry has appointed a prosecutor, John Bradley, the District Attorney from Williamson County (a notoriously conservative and excessively "tough on crime" county just north of Austin). Bradley will also assume the new FSC's role as chair. Bradley immediately canceled the 2 Oct. FSC hearing, where the FSC would have reviewed Beyler's report. The AusChron quoted Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project as saying, "And it is utterly self-protective when there is strong scientific proof that he [Perry] executed an innocent person."

So Perry is looking a lot like someone who (13 months before his next election) desperately wants to bury the fact that he may have executed an innocent man. Maybe that insanely "tough on crime" political stance wasn't so politically clever after all.

Presumably more important than Perry's career, of course, is the fact that an innocent man may have been executed. Governor Perry could have stopped the execution in 2004, either commuting the sentence to life without parole, or granting a stay for some period of time until the evidence could have been reviewed by more arson and fire experts. But Perry did not give Willingham any more time so that the initial report could be reviewed by more experts, and he allowed Willingham to be executed. Perry should have read Hurt's report, disputing the conslusion of arson, maybe he did. Though what is the likelihood that a man whose nickname is "Governor Goodhair" (for his best attribute) is going to be all that thorough when he's trying to maintain the right-wing image of being tough on crime?

Compare Perry with another conservative Republican, Governor Ryan of Illinois. In 2000, Ryan issued a moratorium on executions in Illinois. According to the article in Wikipedia he said, "We have now freed more people than we have put to death under our system." (Since resuming captial punishment in 1977, Ill. had executed 12 people and released 13 from death row.) "There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied." Ryan said, "I still believe the death penalty is a proper response to heinous crimes, but I want to make sure ... that the person who is put to death is absolutely guilty." (Governor Glendening of Maryland issued a similar moratorium in 2002.)

Contrast this with Perry's behavior. If Perry allowed an innocent man to be executed because he was too stupid or too lazy to read or understand a report from a credible expert that refuted the basis for the innocent man's conviction, then Perry seems guilty of negligent homicide or manslaughter. And if he deliberately ignored the merit of the report so he wouldn't loose right-wing votes in the next election, that sounds a lot like "knowingly caused the death of an individual," which is the legal definition of "murder" in the State of Texas. (Somehow, i doubt the Travis County prosecutor will charge him.)

In 2008, four years after Willingham was executed, the Texas Governor's Mansion was nearly destroyed by arson late one night. It was undergoing renovations, so it was empty of people or other historical items. Investigators speculated there might have been "political motivation."

Posted by johan | Permanent link | File under: politics

Sat Oct 3 19:26:45 CDT 2009

Bought my first Truck today

I'd lived in Texas for a total of almost 30 years, so i figured it was time. Being me, though, the "truck" turned out to be a Pinzgauer 710M, made in Austria by Steyr-Daimler-Puch in 1973, i think for the Swiss Army to use.

[ Edit on 22 Oct ] And i decided to call her "Elfi," which is short for "Elfriede," a name sometimes given to Austrian women. Internet sources say it means "Elf Strength." I'm really tempted to paint "ELF POWER!" on her. But that seems a little tacky. I've never named any of my previous autos, but i already seem peculiarly attached to Elfi, and i decided i needed a name to beg, cajole, or curse when i was trying to get the surprisingly-heavy brake and clutch pedal assembly bolted back to the inside of the front of the vehicle while lying upside down in the driver's seat with my head on the floor plate and mosquitoes buzzing around my face.

Somehow, made made her way to Colorado, and then Austin, where i bought her today. (Pictures of her in my driveway.)

Now i need to find someone who will sell me insurance -- my current auto policy is with Travelers, and they won't. And before you start making jokes about where to get parts, ironically, the manufacturer of the Pinzgauer, Steyr, will probably outlive the manufacturer of my other car, a Saturn. [And it turned out that State Farm ensured Elfi.]

Posted by johan | Permanent link | File under: randomweirdness