Urban legend debunked

As someone who has heard a large number of sermons in his lifetime, I can tell you that this urban legend (debunked here) is frequently used as a sermon illustration:

The urban legend is that if you place a frog in cool water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog will not attempt to jump out of the pot and will appear as if it is feeling no pain and will gradually boil to death. The story is that being that the frog is cold blooded, its body adjusts to its surrounding environment and it will simply “allow” itself to boil to death. It is often used as a metaphor to say that gradual change can be imperceptible, when compared to a major change, or just throwing the frog into boiling water. …

Vic’s [Dr. Victor Hutchison of the University of Oklahoma] answer was as follows: “The legend is entirely incorrect! The ‘critical thermal maxima’ of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.”

Hat tip James Fallows, who points out that Al Gore used this illustration in An Inconvenient Truth. In a different post, Fallows points out, “It’s mean to the frogs to keep talking about them this way.”


Commemorating a bygone era

John Londei, Shutting Up Shop

From today’s Artdaily.org:

In 1972, photographer John Londei started taking pictures of small independent shops the length and breadth of Britain. Often family-run businesses, well-established in their local communities, Londei strove to capture the timeworn presence of these already anachronistic businesses:  the butchers and bakers, button makers, cobblers, fishmongers and chemists of our high streets.

Over a fifteen-year period, he photographed 60 shops. In 2004, when he retraced his steps and revisited the shops he’d photographed, he found that only seven of the 60 were still in business.

If you happen to be in London, Londei’s photographs will be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery through May 4, 2008. And, as you can see from the photo at the top of this post, Londei has just published a book of these photos, Shutting Up Shop.

You can see a series of photographs on Londei’s Web site. Here’s one of my particular favourites:

Dog's Beauty Saloon

Note the name of the establishment:  Kim’s Dogs Beauty Saloon. Presumably your dog could stop by for a quick trim and a shot of whiskey.

Some of the shops had fallen into disrepair:  e.g., the fishmongers. Others stocked a product that no longer serves a purpose:  e.g., England’s last cork shop, and maybe the Magic shop.

As for the Harris Tweed shop, located in the Outer Hebrides:  it might as well be located on the far side of the moon, because you have to wonder where their custom came from.

Others possess a charm that will surely be missed:  the basket weaver, the tea merchant, and Sheila’s Milliner (i.e., hat shop).

We won’t see their likes again. And isn’t the world a poorer place for their passing?

Another phony “expert” witness for the prosecution

About a month ago, I told you about a pathologist in Ontario who may be responsible for convicting several innocent people.

Charles Smith testified in dozens of cases in which a child had been murdered. It now appears that he was overly zealous to get a conviction. In at least eight cases, it appears likely that an innocent person spent time under investigation or in prison because of Smith. His testimony was very impressive but also inaccurate.

A similar story is now emerging in Maryland. Former Baltimore police sergeant James Kulbicki has spent twelve years in prison for a murder that he may not have committed.

Firearms “expert” Joseph Kopera testified that Kulbicki’s off-duty revolver was the murder weapon. Kopera has now been exposed as a phony by Kulbicki’s lawyer.

The Washington Post reports that Kopera lied about his professional credentials.

Kopera testified at the 1995 trial that he had an engineering degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Maryland. Drouet [Kulbicki’s lawyer] contacted both schools, whose registrars said that Kopera never attended their programs. A University of Maryland transcript that Kopera had submitted after he was questioned to substantiate his credentials was deemed a forgery by the school’s registrar, court records show.

Confronted with the evidence, Kopera, 61, abruptly retired Feb. 28 and committed suicide a day later. His three decades of work in scores of other cases statewide is now under scrutiny by the state police.

Lying about his credentials is bad enough. But Kopera also gave testimony against Kulbicki which is contradicted by his own lab notes:

Kopera had testified that the bullet fragment recovered from the victim’s head and the one found in Kulbicki’s truck were of a “large” caliber, at least a .38 or .40. That would make them consistent with bullets fired from Kulbicki’s .38-caliber revolver.

But Kopera’s examination notes told a different story. For the bullet fragment recovered from the victim’s brain, Kopera declared the caliber “medium.” For a second fragment recovered in the truck, he put a slash mark in the caliber field of his notes to indicate that it could not be determined.

Kopera also testified that Kulbicki’s weapon was in a “cleaned condition,” allowing prosecutors to suggest to jurors that the defendant had sanitized the weapon to remove any blood or gunpowder residue and to hide the fact that it had been recently fired. …

Once again, Kopera’s notes told a different story.

“Residue in barrel: Yes. Bore condition: Dirty,” his notes stated, suggesting that the gun had not been cleaned.

There is some evidence against the former police sergeant. On the other hand, the defense brought forward several witnesses who testified that Kulbicki was a half hour away at the time of the murder. Perhaps it was Kopera’s testimony that tipped the scales and led to Kulbicki’s conviction.

These are disturbing stories. When you are accused of a crime, you are at the mercy of the state.

Smith and Kopera were supposed to be experts in their field, and there was no reason to suspect them of lying. But in both cases it appears they would say whatever it took to get a conviction.

What a nightmare scenario.

Just when you thought it was safe to fly …

Hundreds of pilots, mechanics and air-traffic controllers reported that fatigue led them to make mistakes on the job, including six cases in which pilots fell asleep in midflight. … In one case, a pilot and co-pilot fell asleep while descending toward Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.

From yesterday’s USA Today.

Testament to a remarkable, complex personality

For such a physically strong and restless man, the act of painting proved an ideal balm and release and he was in fact quoted as saying, “if it weren’t for painting, I couldn’t live; I couldn’t bear the strain of things.”

Artdaily.org reports that Sir Winston Churchill’s painting, Marrakech, will be auctioned off by Sotheby’s. The painting

was a gift from Churchill to the former US President, Harry S. Truman, in 1951 and has remained with the Truman family ever since. The work is being sold by the former President’s daughter, Margaret Truman Daniel, who actually hand-carried the painting from Downing Street, London to the US on behalf of her father.

To accompany his gift, Churchill wrote to Truman: “This picture was hung in the Academy last year, and it is about as presentable as anything I can produce. It shows the beautiful panorama of the Atlas Mountains in Marrakech. This is the view I persuaded your predecessor [President Roosevelt] to see before he left North Africa after the Casablanca Conference [in 1943]. He was carried to the top of a high tower, and a magnificent sunset was duly in attendance.”

Wrongly convicted

An extraordinary real life drama is playing itself out in Ontario and Saskatchewan.

Pathologist Charles Smith conducted hundreds of autopsies, investigating suspicious deaths of children. He frequently testified in court as an expert witness.

We now know that Dr. Smith was the person primarily responsible for convicting a series of innocent people. Mothers, fathers, uncles, and babysitters were wrongly accused and often convicted of killing a child in their care.

The current story concerns a belated “not guilty” verdict in the case of Williams Mullins-Johnson. Dr. Smith found that Mullins-Johnson’s four-year-old niece had been sodomized and strangled to death in June 1993. The Globe and Mail fills in the tragic details:

At the time, Mr. Mullins-Johnson was living with his brother, Paul, and his sister-in-law, Kim, in their home on the [Indian] reserve near Sault Ste. Marie. The previous night, he had babysat their three children, giving Valin an affectionate hug as she settled into her bed for the night.

Weeping, Mr. Mullins-Johnson recounted his sister-in-law’s horror when she discovered the next morning that Valin was dead. He described his brother’s frantic efforts to roll Valin – her body rigid with rigor mortis – over onto her back so that he could administer CPR.

Within 11 hours, police had arrested Mr. Mullins-Johnson and carted him off for a nightmarish interrogation session. “They kept screaming at me that they had evidence that I did this and that,” Mr. Mullins-Johnson recalled. “With every accusation, I responded: ‘I didn’t do it.’”

His horrified extended family “closed ranks on me,” Mr. Mullins-Johnson testified. He said that since he, too, trusted the experts, he came to believe privately that his brother might have killed his daughter.

(The two men are estranged. Speaking to reporters Monday, Mr. Mullins-Johnson said: “I would tell Paul that nobody hurt your little girl. We have suffered enough. It is a point where we have to heal now.”)

CTV news reports that Mullins-Johnson eventually obtained the support of David Bayliss, a lawyer with the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted. Bayliss says,

This was an alleged sex-homicide. There was no semen. There was no blood. There was no saliva, no hair, no biological material whatsoever connected Billy to Valin or the bed where she was found dead.

Experts have now re-examined the evidence and determined that Valin was neither sodomized nor strangled, contrary to Dr. Smith’s expert testimony. Mullins-Johnson was finally acquitted by the Ontario Court of Appeal yesterday, but he had spent 12 years in jail for the murder of his niece.

CTV briefly summarizes a second case: Louise Reynolds was wrongly accused of killing her seven-year-old daughter.

Dr. Smith concluded Sharon died a horrific death, stabbed more than 80 times, likely with a pair of scissors.

Two years later, another pathologist publicly challenged Smith’s findings:

Dr. James Ferris is an internationally-renown forensic pathologist. He concluded there was only one possible explanation for Sharon’s wounds. “They were absolutely classic of dog bite. In my view there was never any other reasonable opinion,” says Ferris, who had high profile involvement in the Australian dingo-baby case.

But Dr. Smith had already testified there “was absolutely no way in the world a dog could have caused that pattern of injury,” even though a pit bull living in the house was spotted with a red substance around its mouth on the day Sharon was found.

Reynolds spent 22 months in jail before the Crown dropped its case against her.

Wikipedia summarizes six more suspicious cases in which Dr. Smith played a pivotal role.

It can’t bite, but that isn’t the end that worries me

skunk with head in jar

Found wandering in the parking lot of a police station in Michigan.

A police officer “rescued” Monsieur le Pew, sort of. It sounds like he did a half-assed job of it.

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