Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Justice delayed or justice denied

Death chamber for lethal injection
For the family of slain Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail the last two decades have moved slowly and steadily with no closure in sight. His accused killer Troy Davis was charged with the cold-blooded crime despite not a speck of physical evidence. The prosecution proved their case. Nine men had testified that he had done the deed. A Georgia police officer, husband, father, brother and son had been slain. The jury found him guilty and because this was a capital offense involving the killing of a police officer, Davis received the ultimate punishment during the punishment phase of the trial. He was to be executed by the state. In plain and simple terms Davis waited for his date with the executioner for nearly two decades. Over that time he exhausted appeal after appeal. They were denied, but at each turn he was spared and his team of attorneys continued to press their case. Curiously, the longer the conviction stood, the fewer of his accusers were certain Davis was the responsible party. At first, one then two recanted their testimony. Three became five and that soon led to seven out of the nine who changed their minds. Davis never admitted he was guilty. Indeed, he was defiant. It was someone else that had killed MacPhail, he maintained. He was innocent. He pressed his case for a new trial. Another person confessed to the crime, but the courts did not overturn the verdict. Davis' attorneys hoped that some august body of judges would hear his case and grant that a new trial was in order or else find some opportunity to commute the sentence to life in prison while they continued to demand justice. The MacPhail family needing closure for their loss pressed just as hard. What kind of world would allow a public servant who was killed in the line of duty to be forgotten and his killer to remain free? At every appeal there was the MacPhail family demanding justice and there was the Davis family vigorously campaigning for a new trial decrying no semblance of justice. Recently, Davis had gotten closer to the executioner's needle, but last minute reprieves kept his chances and himself alive. But the clock kept ticking. The MacPhail family became jaded. They wanted to know their son had not lived and died in vain. The Davises labored long and hard, reminding the public and officials it was better to let ten murderers go free than to put one innocent man to death. And on it went. When his latest appeal was turned down and the governor refused to act, Davis prepared to meet his maker. Outside the prison and elsewhere there were protests of considerable size. People carried placards and shouted out, while Davis contemplated the meaning of it all. To the end he maintained his innocence even as the IV was attached to his arm and the drugs were sent coursing in his veins. Was this justice? The MacPhails say so. Those that hoped Davis would live say no. In the end it's just one man's life and with the wanton fashion in which lives are snuffed out in an instant these days one may question why the ruckus. In 16 states and the District of Columbia there is no death penalty. These include New York, Illinois, Michigan and Massachusetts - some of the most populous states - and North Dakota, Vermont and Alaska - some with the least populations. Elsewhere in the world countries like the United Kingdom proscribe a death penalty. Is a lifetime behind bars a proper punishment for someone who has deprived another human being of their ultimate right - the right to life? Some of Davis' last words are haunting: "I am not the one who took your son, father or brother!" Only the Allmighty knows if he was telling the truth and if the State of Georgia railroaded a verdict against an innocent man. Fully 65% of Americans believe in the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. If this execution proves nothing else, it proves that Americans are still sharply divided over the right for any state to take a life. In the end there are two families suffering from loss and neither has been fully served by this execution. No one is truly happy. Yes, the MacPhail family has settled for closure. It is simply not possible to bring back Officer MacPhail. Likewise, the Davis family can no longer visit their loved one and they mourn his execution. One thing is certain: the suffering will continue as will the contentious debate over the death penalty.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gamers defeat HIV mystery

HIV - Could scientists and gamers be on to a cure?

Interesting news today from the computing world. It seems that online gamers have done what scientists have been unable to do by themselves, that is, decrypt the structure of an enzyme in a family of retroviruses that includes the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The monomeric protease enzyme is described as a cutting agent used to tailor retroviruses on a molecular level. Scientists have known about the enzyme for a while, but they could only observe it under an electron microscope which yielded a flat, two-dimensional image. Thanks to a partnership with the gamers, who utilized a special gaming program called Foldit, the scientists were able to understand the complex three-dimensional structure of the enzyme. Understanding the structure could eventually lead to further insight as to how certain diseases like HIV spread and how to design specific blockers to halt them. Foldit was developed as a game by the University of Washington in 2008 in which teams of gamers were enlisted to unfold chains of amino acids, considered the building blocks of proteins. In just three weeks time the gamers were able to unlock the mystery of the enzyme and delivered an accurate three-dimensional model of its structure. Scientists who credited the gamers for the discovery along with themselves say this is the first time that computer gamers have contributed to such a discovery. It shows that the gamers' human spatial reasoning can rise above the skills sets enployed by computers alone. Scientists failed because they could not develop a way to interpret the data from the computers without this extra level of spatial reasoning honed in Foldit. It shows that computers need humans in order to advance to a higher level and dashes much of the doom and gloom forecasts of the downfall of human intellect attributed to the computer. The entire story is presented in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. (You may want to take my word because the cost of reading the article is $32.) This may be just the first step in many new ones to come which could lead to the understanding of the behavior of retroviruses like HIV and could help bring about a cure for the devastating disease of AIDS.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Dust (revisited 9 years later)

The Dust

The field of honor that was once

A testament of steel

Has now been cleared of all debris

Except that which we feel.

In the ruins of sorrow

Families cry for those that won’t return.

Children wail and lovers weep

For those of whom they yearn.

The uniforms of blue and white --

Reminders to us all --

Are fused with red, which is the blood

Of those who heard the call.

And brave men out on foreign soil

Now wage the battle proud.

They rattle sabers gleaming bright

Their caissons ring out loud.

The sinister force from far off lands

Sent assassins from the skies

They thought that killing innocents

Would reinforce their lies.

But what beheld them following

This cowardly attack

Was a steely-eyed America

That was ready to fight back.

The dust that fell from towers tall

Still lingers to this day.

It flows throughout our beating hearts --

It shows up when we pray.

And while we fight these craven foes,

We know we’ve just begun

To honor those that passed away

The date of Nine-One-One.

©2002 Alan Smason

Friday, September 9, 2011

Becoming a YES man

Late last week I received an invitation by e-mail I had never thought would ever be extended to the likes of moi. The simply worded explanation told me that David Cuthbert, the retired theatre critic for the Times-Picayune had elected to retire from "Steppin' Out," the weekly arts review show seen for most of the last two decades over PBS affiliate WYES-TV. The note asked me to join them as the local theatre reviewer and to add my picks for best bets on the scene. I've known WYES for years before they became known as the home of "Sesame Street." It is one of the oldest PBS stations in the country and I remember it changed its original call number from Channel 8 to its present Channel 12 sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s. That switch was made to accommodate the then-ABC affiliate to occupy the more coveted VHS position in the market. With cable and satellite television today such swaps are hardly necessary. WYES-TV is a member-supported PBS station, but does require and receives a good amount of local support as well from area businesses, most notably through the very successful art and other auctions it stages every year. A number of local productions are financed through The Producers Circle, a group dedicated toward the creation and proliferation of local programming at the station. "Steppin' Out" is hosted by Peggy Scott Laborde, a well-known and respected TV journalist, whose local productions on a number of themes of local interest have been acknowledged as having set high industry standards and worthy of numerous citations and awards. As the host of "Steppin' Out," Laborde lords over various authorities and gets their take on the local arts scene. When the program first began, the late Al Shea, a longtime fixture in New Orleans TV and on the local theatre scene, was called upon to give his take on local theatre as well as to opine about the various actors, producers, choreographers and directors whose work was essential and important. After Shea passed away two years ago, Cuthbert was the logical person to take over the theatre reviews on "Steppin' Out" insofar as he had just retired from the newspaper and was (and still is) considered one of the most informed authorities on theatre in New Orleans. There is no doubt that I love and have loved theatre for most of my life. The love of music was probably bred in me in vitro. I sold classical, opera and musical theatre recordings at my family record store for decades, but also became a local radio broadcaster out of college. Because of that, I probably know more about musical theatre than most, but admit I still have a lot to learn in many areas and am in fact still learning. I have been a member of the Big Easy Theatre Committee for 12 years and have written extensively on the local theatre scene in print and online at Yet, to have an invitation extended to me to take over this slot after such an outstanding legacy by these two gentlemen I have so admired and respected, most assuredly makes me feel unworthy and unsure. I accepted because I really do believe I can do this job, but I do so humbly and with respect knowing that the path I follow has been so expertly laid before me that I must take care not to undo what they have done or upset the delicate balance they have set. Today is my first day and I hope I am up to this challenge. The broadcast is shown on Friday nights at 6:30 p.m. and re-broadcast at 11:00 p.m. I say yes to WYES and I hope the staff there and others who watch say the same right back to me.