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January 9th, 2011:

Weekend link dump for January 9

Meet Daniel Hernandez, the hero from yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona who may have saved Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ life.

The best New Year blog post title that I saw.

You do know that God is not mentioned in the Constitution, right?

A little nuance is always appreciated, though I think the people who cause the problems will do so regardless.

The real death panels were of course Republican creations.

How to be a more awesome crackpot. Great suggestions, but I still think that a maniacal laugh and a disfigured assistant are your best bets.

A progressive wish list for 2011. I’d put judicial confirmations at the top. It’s not like the Senate will have any other pressing business, since it did as much as it did last year and won’t be getting many bills worthy of consideration for the next two years.

Ozzy made me do it!

From the be careful what you sue for files.

Great interview with Al Jaffe, one the iconic and extremely prolific MAD Magazine artists.

People around the world will be dropping trou today. Maybe someday when we have a fuller light rail system, this will happen in Houston, too.

Republicans love deficits. Everything they do makes that clear.

Well, our attention span is always getting shorter, so our soundbites should be, too.

From the “It’s OK if you’re a Republican President” files. Or a Republican Congressman, for that matter.

John Profitt of KUHF tells us what he really thinks about NPR.

Tom DeLay may be gone, but he’s not been forgotten by his cronies in the House.

RSS is not dead. I’m very glad to hear that.

An implementation timeline for the Affordable Care Act.

“Sweetcakes”? Seriously?

It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you’re stuck dealing with a bunch of turkeys.

“Cahooting” is an excellent word.

In case you were wondering, Republicans aren’t serious about policy matters. Or the Constitution, either. Probably because they like to pick and choose the parts of it they revere and the parts of it they rather not talk about, thank you very much. Unless you’re talking about the conservative Constitution, of course.

“Original intent” is a load of BS and little more than a smokescreen for the preferences of the privileged.

I’m not sure why it’s counterintuitive that giving people money tends to make them less poor, but there you have it.

The worst playoff teams of all time. Apparently, nobody told the Seahawks.

How gullible do Congressional Republicans think the teabaggers will be?

It would help if the so-called “fiscal responsibility” activists would recognize and reward members of Congress that actually act fiscally responsible manner, instead of just those who talk a good game.

How should you optimize your chances of kicking that last-second field goal? Let physics show you the way.

Did you hear that the infamous “vaccinations cause autism” study has now been shown to be a complete fraud? Now go read this after you read that.

You can add “bufferbloat” to the list of things you didn’t know you needed to worry about.

Repealing the Affordable Care Act will increase the deficit. Film at 11.

Pete Sessions, ladies and gentlemen. Among other things, we grow our idiots bigger in Texas, too.

Job-killing versus people-killing. The GOP cares about the one that doesn’t happen, and not about the one that does.

Killing the messenger, that they believe in.

Small businesses love the Affordable Care Act.

Forensic Science Commission finally hears Willingham testimony

If you were hoping the state of Texas would be open to changing how arson investigations should be done, then the hearing was a disappointment. Still, some good things happened.

Speaking at a special meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which is examining the science used to convict Willingham, the invited experts had little positive to say about an investigation they characterized as incomplete and investigators they criticized for improperly jumping to unjustified conclusions.

“Everything documented post-fire was just as consistent with an accidental fire as an intentional fire,” said John DeHaan , author of “Kirk’s Fire Investigation,” a widely used textbook. “You have really no basis for concluding this was arson.”

But the commission also heard from an official in the state fire marshal’s office who stood by the arson conclusion, saying it was reached after a thorough, professional investigation and supported by the evidence.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Ed Salazar admitted that in the years since 1991, science has determined that some of the evidence used to convict Willingham does not necessarily point to arson. But, he said, tests that found a combustible liquid under the front door and the presence of certain burn patterns support such a finding.

“They followed the protocols; they followed the practices that were available and being used at the time,” Salazar said. “I believe the conclusions they reached can be scientifically sound.”

The DMN and Chron have more, as does Dave Mann:

Fire Marshal officials appeared before the Texas Forensic Science Commission at a hearing in downtown Austin to publicly answer questions for the first time about their handling of the Willingham case. Assistant Fire Marshal Ed Salazar told the commissioners today that his office stands behind the Willingham investigation and its conclusions.

In the past 15 years, scientific experiments have proved false many of the old assumptions that fire investigators relied on, including many in the Willingham case. But no matter. Salazar said if this case were being probed today, his office might reach similar findings. That’s a scary thought.

[…]

As Salazar presented his evidence and contended that the slides still supported a finding of arson, it became clear that the field of fire investigation hadn’t come quite as far as we thought. His presentation relied on outdated notions, what some fire scientists have taken to calling “old wives tales.”

For instance, Salazar showed photos of burn patterns on the floor of the Willingham house that were labeled “pour patterns.” Investigators alleged this is where Willingham poured an accelerant to start the blaze. Salazar contended that even under today’s standards, pour patterns can be potential evidence of arson.

In reality, scientists now know that after a fire goes to flashover stage, which this fire did, investigators can glean very little information from the burn patterns on the floor. That’s because during flashover, the fire will scorch the floor. So after flashover, burns on the floor tell you nothing about how the fire started.

Salazar also showed photos of burned holes in the floor. This is another “old wives tale.” Salazar claimed that deep burning on the floor could indicate the presence of an accelerant. (In fact, the opposite is true, as DeHaan later explained in his rebuttal testimony. Repeated scientific testing has shown that gasoline and other accelerants burn off quickly, making it “very difficult, if not impossible, for the fire to burn through the floor,” DeHaan said. Typically, only a fire that goes to flashover can burn long enough to consume the floor. So, the deep burning on the floor couldn’t have been caused by an accelerant, but was simply the byporduct of the fire going to flashover.)

Undeterred, Salazar plowed ahead. He said Vasquez had followed the scientific method and drawn proper conclusions. “[The finding of arson] is a judgment call ultimately coming down to opinions.” The fire scientists might assert that fire investigators relied on their opinions for too long rather than verifiable scientific fact.

But everyone would probably agree with what Salazar said next: “There is an underlying tension between the scientific community and the people doing the down and dirty work.”

Reading this, I can only hope I’m never called to serve on a jury in an arson case, because I’d have to tell the judge that I would be unable to vote for conviction because I have no faith in the state’s ability to determine whether or not arson was actually the cause. Before the Willingham case distracted everybody, the purpose of the Forensic Science Commission was to evaluate the methods being used in (among other things) arson cases. If nothing else, it is now crystal clear that the state of Texas does not believe in using science when investigating suspicious fires. If the Forensic Science Commission does not make strong recommendations for how to fix this, then everything it has done will have been a waste of time and effort. Given the number of people currently sitting in jail because of questionable arson convictions, that would be a bigger tragedy than the Willingham case. Grits, who also attended, provides a detailed writeup as well.

No more plastic bags in Brownsville

It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

The eyes of retail will be on Brownsville this week as the city forges ahead as the first in Texas to ban single-use plastic bags.

The ordinance against the so-called “urban tumbleweeds” [started] Wednesday, and merchants from the big-box national retailers on down are on board with a mix of reusable bags for sale, ranging from cloth totes to Wal-Mart Stores’ reusable plastic bags that are supposed to withstand 50 uses.

That’s in addition to the tens of thousands already given away at community events throughout the year.

“We’ve got national support for a local cause,” said Rose Timmer, executive director of Healthy Communities of Brownsville, the nonprofit group that championed the ban.

Residents who haven’t purchased or gotten some of the freebie reusable bags from local nonprofits and other businesses will have to bring bags from home, buy reusable bags or pay a $1 surcharge at the register to have goods packed in stores’ remaining single-use bags.

[…]

Naysayers have said shoppers simply will go to neighboring communities rather than be inconvenienced, but [city Commissioner Edward] Camarillo said that’s empty talk.

“Look at the price of gasoline right now,” he said. “We don’t believe that this is going to cause them to drive out of their way to another community just because there is no plastic bag.”

I think it’s highly unlikely people will drive out of town to avoid paying a $1 surcharge. As Commissioner Camarillo noted, the extra you’d spend on gas doing so would wipe that out and then some. Plus, the grocery store business is built on convenience and proximity. I don’t see people preferring to change where they shop instead of changing their bagging habits.

There is one point of concern:

Brownsville resident Fred Garza, 21, said he anticipates “chaos.”

He said many people, himself included, use the single-use bags to line waste bins or clean up after pets, and he thinks it would be more wasteful to have to buy the bags.

I admit, I’ve used bags from the grocery store to clean up after my dog. Mostly I use the bags that the Chronicle comes in for that purpose, but that may not be an option for you in Brownsville. You can always choose to pay the surcharge if you don’t have any other means by which to deal with this.

Anyway, if this works the way its designers intend, I’ll bet you see other cities try to adopt similar plans. I won’t be surprised at all to see it on a Houston City Council agenda in another year or so. What do you think?

Austin gay divorce upheld

Gay divorce seekers are one for two in the state of Texas.

Over the objections of state Attorney General Greg Abbott, an Austin appellate court has upheld the divorce of a lesbian couple married in Massachusetts.

When a lower court granted their divorce in February of last year, Abbott’s office filed a petition to intervene in the case. The 3rd Court of Appeals has now declined that request on procedural grounds, leaving the divorce intact. The court found that Abbott lacked standing to appeal because his office wasn’t a party to the case.

This is the second appellate court decision in a same-sex divorce case. In August, a Dallas appeals court made a conflicting ruling: it denied the divorce of two gay men, agreeing with Abbott’s argument that since the Texas Constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman, the state can’t dissolve a marriage it doesn’t recognize. Gov. Rick Perry has also publicly noted his support of Abbott’s position.

The Statesman addresses some specifics.

A three-judge panel of the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals found that Abbott does not have jurisdiction to appeal the case because he did not seek to intervene until after state District Judge Scott Jenkins orally granted the divorce in February 2009. The opinion, written by Justice Diane Henson, noted that only under certain limited circumstances can the state appeal in a lawsuit where it was not a party.

“This case is not a suit to declare a statute unconstitutional or enjoin its enforcement,” Henson wrote, naming some of those circumstances, “but a private divorce proceeding involving issues of property division and child custody.”

Henson, a Democrat, was joined in the opinion by Justice Woodie Jones, a Democrat, and Justice David Puryear, a Republican.

Because the judges did not allow Abbott’s appeal, the opinion did not address his argument that Jenkins lacked the authority to grant the divorce because same-sex marriage is prohibited in Texas. Henson’s opinion, however, did note that there are interpretations of the law that would allow divorce of same-sex couples while upholding a provision of the Texas Family code that prohibits the validation or recognition of gay marriage. Those interpretations, Henson wrote, “would allow the trial court to grant the divorce without finding the statute unconstitutional.”

For example, she wrote, someone could argue that “the trial court is only prohibited from taking actions that create, recognize, or give effect to same-sex marriages on a ‘going forward’ basis, so that the granting of divorce would be permissible.”

Abbott’s lawyers could ask the 3rd Court to reconsider the case or appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

In a statement, Abbott spokeswoman Lauren Bean said his office “will weigh all the options to ensure that the will of Texas voters and their representatives is upheld.”

See here and here for more background. I will be shocked if Abbott does not pursue this to the Supreme Court, especially given the other appeals court ruling. I would prefer he didn’t – I hope this ruling stands till the state comes to its senses and grants marriage equality to all -but I don’t expect that to happen, unfortunately. Hair Balls has more.

No more texting while driving in Seguin

Add another city to the list of those that have banned the practice.

Seguin has joined several area cities in banning texting and using applications on cell phones while driving.

The new ordinance went into effect [last] Saturday, joining bans already in place in San Antonio, Universal City, Selma and Converse. The Seguin City Council voted unanimously in November to ban using wireless communication devices while driving.

The council set up a 30-day grace period to publicize the ordinance before implementing the law.

Offenders could face a fine of up to $500.

[…]

Seguin Police Detective Aaron Seidenberger said the focus of the ordinance is “safety, preventing injuries and preventing accidents.”

The offense makes it unlawful for “an operator of a motor vehicle to use a wireless communication device to view, send or compose an electronic message or manually engage other application software while operating a motor vehicle upon a roadway in the city,” he said.

Manually engaging other application software includes using built-in GPS, the Internet or Facebook. Talking on the phone is legal except in school zones.

“So, it’s not just texting,” Seidenberger said. “Technically speaking, you can’t go to your GPS app on a phone and pull up a location and hold it in your hand and manipulate the keypad or phone while you’re driving. You can cradle it where it’s hands-free, but you can’t manipulate it while you’re driving. ”

He said the law also applies when a motorist is stopped at a stop sign or red light.

Remember to adjust your behavior the next time you’re in Seguin. This is normally where I’d say that I expect there to be some attempt in the Lege to standardize these rules at the state level, but I’m not so sure about that for this session. There’s too much other stuff going on, and I don’t think anything that’s not on the approved Republican wish list will get much attention. I could be wrong, but I’d bet we’re more likely to see this come up in a future legislature than in this one.